Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

Prolegomena to a Future Theology

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“Prolegomena: a preliminary discussion; introductory essay, as prefatory matter in a book; a prologue” — http://www.dictionary.com

Updated in April 2019 to smooth rough edges, remove less relevant material, and shorten up.

Most of these blog essays rest on an ontology and theology but briefly explicated. I have written in more detail of it in the two books “Why This Universe” (2014) and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” (2016). This essay is an attempt to state it more succinctly and then clearly relate it to the rest of my interests in philosophy. In my books and essays I’ve argued that theology, and in particular, this set of theological axioms and theorems, provide the best explanations for certain aspects of our (that is human) experience both phenomenologically and historically. In this essay I’m not going to argue about any particular experience (except perhaps as example) but rather the relation between this theology and the overall viewpoint of my philosophical ruminations.

I did not invent this ontology or theology. It comes from “The Urantia Book” first published in 1955 by the Urantia Foundation and now in the public domain. There are now superb e-book versions for less than $4, one of them linked above. My own contribution is to organize but a fraction of the content of The Urantia Book’s theological system into a form that I can subsequently use (in my books and the many other essays of this blog) to relate the ontology and the theology to problems in contemporary philosophy.

Joints in Reality

As this paper is primarily an explication of the theology, I will only briefly address the ontology it implies. What follows here is not a presupposition of the theology, but an inference from it. This is to say if God is something like or has something like the positive qualities ascribed to him below, then something like this ontology must obtain.

The entirety of all that is real can, in the final analysis, be divided into three distinct but interacting domains; Spirit, Mind, and Matter-energy. It is said that “God is Spirit”, but whatever else it is that constitutes Spirit we have little ability to know. Little however is not none, and one quality Spirit must have is the power to have been the source of the two other domains.

Mind here is not taken to be individual human minds, but broadly the phenomena of mind in the universe. Mind is expressed as animal mind including the human and perhaps in other ways throughout the universe. As a domain, however, Mind can be taken to be a kind of reality as real as, but also different from, Spirit and Matter-energy.

Matter-energy is the domain with which we are most familiar because even mind of the human sort rests on top of it. It is because Mind in some sense intervenes between Spirit and Matter-energy that localized mind, the sort of mind we have, is capable of comprehending and manipulating Matter-energy relations.

Crucially 1) Spirit is the source of both Matter-energy and mind, and 2) everything that is, everything that exists is either Spirit, Mind, Matter-energy, or some combination of the three. Minded animals are a common example of the combination of Matter-energy and Mind. Human mindedness in particular is also sensitive to the reality of values, truth, beauty, and goodness. This is the only direct phenomenal access we have to “what we can know of Spirit”.  It is because human mind is sensitive to values, that we can choose to be “led by Spirit”.

Theology is Realism

Modern philosophy seems shot through with antirealism which not only refuses to recognize a basis for correspondence between subjective experience and the “in-itself out there” external to it, but denies even that it is rational to think there might be a correspondence. This includes even such logical frames as the Principle of Sufficient Reason, self-identity, and the Principle of Non-contradiction. Some antirealists argue that while these three pillars of rational thought are essential to us, to making sense of subjective experience, we are not justified assuming they apply to the “in-itself external” or even that there is an in-itself external independent of our temporal subjectivity. As concerns God it simply isn’t possible for antirealists to assume they can say anything positive. If we cannot say anything meaningful about our immediate externality, how much less could we possibly be able to say about God who would have to be at a further step removed?

Any serious theology then must begin from a realist perspective. God’s existence supports a direct realism (see John Searle “Seeing Things as they Are”). If God is real, human mind can be substantive in someway or other, and can be presupposed to be designed to perceive and manipulate the structure of the world.

We are here philosophers. The point of “God talk” is to get something out of it for philosophy. Does assuming God exists and ascribing logically maximal qualities to him improve insights into other questions. What questions? Broadly, questions about the nature and origins of our experiential world and experience itself  and how the two of them go together, that is what relation or relations, do they have? Many philosophers today will say that such questions are not meaningful; they do not correspondence to anything real and therefore cannot have a truth value. There cannot be any relation between what exists and what doesn’t exist, God, with unicorns falling into that latter category.

These philosophers will say there is an infinite number of such possible metaphysical claims and no way to discriminate between them. I do not believe this is correct. Not just anything will do. To accommodate all of our real experience, sensory, intentional, directed, only some possible imaginings will work, and in particular, when you add also moral convictions like the social reality of duty, only one works. But before I can defend that assertion I must set forth the one. That is the purpose of this paper.

In what follows I use the personal male pronoun ‘he’, ‘his’, to mean God. I do this only when the reference is obvious and to avoid having to repeat ‘God’ or ‘God’s’ over and again. My use here is by convention only and not meant to imply that God is a man (or woman). The personal pronoun does, however, imply person-hood or I might have used ‘it’. This particular implication is to be fleshed-out later in the essay.

Dispensing with Arguments Against

Why do [most] philosophers and scientists say “God doesn’t exist”? There are two justifications: (1) physics finds nothing to suggest that anything besides physics exists, and (2) every “proof of God” advanced in the history of philosophy is flawed. The first objection is easy to discount. Essays in this blog address it, but the bottom line is that physics cannot hope to “find evidence” for anything purportedly non-physical. In the view of most theoretical speculation about God, his would be an existence (implying a reality) outside physics on the simplest grounds that he created physics (if he did not create physics, then he is not God). But physics can only be about the physical. All instruments, and ultimately our sensory apparatuses, are physical and can only detect and measure physical phenomena. The notion the “physical absence of evidence” for the nonphysical has any relevance to the matter of God’s existence is nonsensical. I note this does not mean that God exists either. It means physics (science generally) is in no position to say.

The second objection is more telling. Even besides physics, no proof of God’s existence (a proof being something that takes place in logic and has meaning only in the mental arena of persons) is to be had. Why? If God exists “the mental arena of persons” is (like physics), a phase of some total creation. The logical universe is consistent. Given Godel’s incompleteness theorem, it is not possible to prove every possible truthful proposition of the system. “God exists” is a possibly truthful proposition of the system that cannot be demonstrated from within the system. We cannot prove, from within our perspective, that which by stipulation if nothing else must lay outside our perspective. Tellingly, as there is no proof, there is no disproof either. God is not logically impossible.

To derive philosophical value from God, that is to justify or even suggest that assuming God exists makes sense in relation to broad philosophical questions, I proceed in a reductive style and end in an “inference to best explanation.” I assume God exists and has certain necessary qualities or he isn’t God. From those we draw consequences and then evaluate those outcomes against our experience subjective and objective. This amounts to phenomenology (and by extension all the powers and limits of language we use to discuss it) and what physics has discovered about the universe. If we get that far and none of the consequences appears to contradict our experience, the last step is to evaluate those consequences against the sum total of our subjective and collective experience. To do any of this we presuppose that we can say something meaningful about God; that we are able (again supposing God exists) to express propositions whose content could be true (not inconsistent with experience). Such propositions would have a truth maker (see “Truth and Truthmaking”) which would be God.

So we begin by supposing there is a God who is the source of being, the material universe, ourselves, and anything else there might be in whatever sense being is something real including God. God must be his own cause (or strictly causeless) and further he must be the only self-caused (uncaused) entity in the universe; ‘universe’ here cannot be merely the physical world in which we find ourselves. The physical world is underlain by space (possibly quantized) and drenched in time. God must be the source of both space and time, and thus must in some sense be “outside it”. If God is God, then he must be able to act (or by choice refrain from acting) to effect anything not logically impossible, anywhere in his creation whether at a time and place or across all time and space. A traditional miracle, might serve as an example of the former, while the constancy and universality of “natural law” could be an example of the latter. If God is real, then “to exist” entails some relation to God however indirect that relation might be.

None of this is to say that, from the human perspective, we have anything resembling a satisfactory grasp of what existence or being is like from God’s perspective. If some realm “outside time”, with God as the source of it (and himself), exists, we cannot, from a perspective within time, say anything about it. It is, so to speak, above our pay grade. All we can do is postulate its existence analogous to the way in which physicists postulate a “quantum realm”, though that remains physical. Why should we then postulate this realm? If God exists outside time, then we must include (allow for) a something “outside time” in our ontology. At the least we must propose a “placeholder”.

Whatever being is, God must exhaust it. God’s perspective cannot be perspectival. His must be the “totalizing perspective” that totalizes. If God is God, then he is also the origin (perhaps indirectly) of mind and so there is some relation between perspectival consciousness, and the creator. Whatever we take consciousness to be its existence is a part of the overall creation. The creation includes everything including our subjectivity. Not only that but it is reasonable to suppose there is a relation between consciousness and the material world it seems to sense. The outstanding problem of realism, the mystery of its representation of the material world, should not be a mystery at all, even if the mechanism remains unexplained, because God is the source of both.

If the foregoing were not the case, there would be (or could be) something “more than God”, something outside God, and that is impossible if God is really God. If there is or might be something outside of God the metaphysical question of its source would be meaningful. God could not be the source of anything that was “beyond or antecedent to him”, and in that case wouldn’t be God in the first place.

What that means for us is that we are in fact able to say something meaningful about God even if what we say, our ideas, propositions, and so on, have only the slightest correspondence to what God is for himself. We must be able to assert true positive propositions about God even though they represent but a small slice of his being. This is not to say that everything we might imagine about God corresponds to anything real. Like unicorns, some of what we imagine about God might have no correspondence to reality what-so-ever. All the same, correspondence must be possible. If nothing else, we can say that if God is God he must be at the top of the chain of being. All being, including God himself, must proceed from God.

If God is God, then being is univocal except as concerns God himself. Matter, mind, values, time, space, and anything else that can be said “to exist” and isn’t God must ultimately originate from God and be able to interact with God and itself. From the human viewpoint there can be many legitimate joints in reality: past present and future, matter and thought, natural and artifactual kinds, or universals and particulars. By contrast God knows every possible joint, and the whole simultaneously. Substances, processes and all their relations must all exist and be fully present across all time to God.

If this is all the case then it is reasonable (rational and warranted) to believe that Principle of Sufficient Reason, self-identity, and non-contradiction apply all the way up the chain of reality to God. They are structurally integral to our thought because they are structurally integral to the universe itself. Some suggest that God himself could deceive us about this, but such deception would entail a schism in reality, the nature and operation of mind would be effectively incompatible with the rest of creation violating the univocality of being. Such a God, would not be God.

To put it in a positive form everything created by God must be consistent with him. The self-consistency of natural law in the physical is one reflection of this, but it would beg our question to infer from the physical to the rest. It would be possible for the physical to be consistent and mind be inconsistent, delivering false perceptions (for example). But in fact the deliverances of mind seem not to be false. To be sure they are incomplete thanks to the limitations of our sensory apparatus, the “aspect (perspectival) nature” of our perception, and [human/animal] mind’s constraint by time. It is from these that seeming inconsistencies arise. They are inconsistencies from our viewpoint. Consciousness, in someway made to exist by God, might not grasp all universe structure (physical or otherwise). But what it does grasp is real and structured in the external (the for-itself) much as it is perceived in the internal (the for-us).

Axioms and Theorems

I will now sum all the foregoing in a few brief statements of what, positive, we can say about Deity even while we have every reason to believe that what we can say encompasses but little grasp of its full nature. If our grasp of material reality does not exhaust its being (Harman and many others), how much less of God’s reality can we grasp with the human mind? Yet we can say the following: God must be unqualifiedly infinite, outside time and space (he is their creator). He must be self-caused (or uncaused) cause and capable of doing anything that isn’t logically impossible. He must be logical and this means not inconsistent or internally contradictory in any measure.

God is not only able to act, he is free willed absolutely. Absolute here means there are no constraints on his action, and free must be in a robust volitional sense. God can choose deliberately and purposefully. Other than logical consistency there can’t be any limits to both the choice or choices God makes. Nothing limits his ability, within (at a particular time and place) or across all time, to act and bring into being (“make real”) that which he desires. He must therefore be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and all of this notwithstanding that he can elect to self-limit provided self-limitation is not inconsistent with his infinity. He might choose (for example) not to act in the material creation throughout all of eternity, but he cannot choose to be unable to act.

God is, in short, God. He can do anything, see anything (whatever “see” means to God), anywhere in time and across time. This implies that if there is some point (purpose) to all of what we experience and everything else there is, God knows what that point is. Moreover, in some far distant future from a perspective within time, that envisaged end point, God’s purpose, must come to pass! I can say more. Even that end point is but the completing of a phase for example “perfecting the material universe” (see my essay “Why Free Will”). God must have further purposes, infinitely many. All the foregoing, as best I can express at this point, follows from the necessity of God’s being infinite, willed, and internally self-consistent. These, in turn, imply constancy throughout eternity — which at least includes “all of time”, past, present, and future. Constancy, in turn, is chosen, freely, by God who knows what it means (omniscience) to “choose for eternity”. I want to stress that all of these qualities are theological axioms, a self-consistent system from which we can derive further (theorems) claims.

I allude to will and purpose above. God must be purposeful, have purpose (even many purposes). Humans experience includes both willfulness and purpose. Human beings cannot have what God lacks. If we are willful and elect purposes so can God and because of the infinity and consistency axioms God’s will must be unqualified (other than by logical contradiction) and his purposes consistent throughout all time. His purposes must be changeless.

There can be purposelessness in phases of the whole creation; purposelessness for a purpose. Physical mechanism, the slavish behavior of the physical world described by physical law, is properly purposeless. But the existence of this mechanism, as such, cannot be purposeless.

Purpose and will are two sides of the same coin. Even in the limited context of human will, we cannot will anything purposelessly, even if the only purpose we have is merely to exercise will. For God to have created anything purposelessly would contradict the consistency axiom. A unified God must not only have purpose, but his purposes cannot be contradictory; all of God’s purposes must, together, point at some internally consistent outcome. Further, his purpose(s) cannot have changed since the beginning of the material world (at least) nor will they change into the indefinite future. This does not mean the content of his purposes are all available to our cognitive grasp. If today humans can grasp more of God’s purpose (not that they usually do) than the human beings of thousands of years past, it is because our intellectual scope has expanded, not because God’s purposes have ever changed.

Purposefulness is a quality of mind. It is precisely one of the strategic discoveries of the sciences that the inanimate ingredients of the material universe, from its basic laws down to the behavior of stars and rocks described by them, are not purposeful in their interactions. The mechanisms of the physical world are not purposeful. This does not mean the whole (a whole which includes mind), is not “for a purpose”, a distinction largely ignored today. Life as such is only metaphorically purposeful. The behavior of non-minded life is rule governed (albeit more complex rules) like the inanimate parts of the world. Literal purpose appears only with mind. God, being purposeful, must be minded in some sense or other. This does not mean that we can have anything of a grasp of his mind compared to ours.

Similarly God must be personal. Nothing exists that isn’t related in someway to God, and that must include human beings and their minds. But there are many kinds of relations. Living entities with minds have some relation to God that inanimate objects lack. But while all minds (even animals) experience subjective relations to other minds (the indirectness of this experience is another matter), human beings experience relationships not merely indirectly but directly “person to person”. As human beings we find ourselves not only minded, but personal. As mind in general has characteristic qualities, so does personality (see “Why Personality”).  The possibility of direct relationship (distinct from relations) is grounded in personality, something humans are as well as being minded. Although we cannot find personality when we look for it [this problem has a long philosophical tradition (see also “Realism and Antirealism“)], personality has positive properties that condition human mind (see again“Why Personality”)  and we cannot have positive properties that God lacks. Personality grounds the possibility of a new relation not available to non-personal mind, a direct relationship with other persons, including the person of God.

This, by the way, is why all the pundits of the present age are wrong when they say that if we met a race from another planet we would have no point of connection with which to grasp their nature. Presumably any race intelligent and sophisticated enough to travel between stars (or even cast a comprehensible signal) would be personal. Apart from the problems of language and the mechanics of communication, we would have no problem relating to them different as their character expression might be.

God must be perfect with perfection understood in a technical sense. Because God is the final source of everything, all distinction in the universe, what is real is dependent on some relation to God. What has no relation to God (unicorns for example) is not real. From this it follows that a degree of reality, that is how real something is, is proportional to its alignment with or semblence to God. The more something is like God, the more real it is. Perfection is then by definition being exactly like God, something only possible for personalities. Why? Because even a minded entity (say a lion’s mind) lacks a connection, lacks a direct relationship, to God, the person-to-person relation that only human beings have. Again this does not mean that persons can become God. It means they can become like God in the sense of sharing the character expression of his personality.

Perfection is much broader than the previous paragraph implies. In general phenomena are “more real”, more perfect, the more like God they are. Stars and rocks are as real, as much “like God” as stars and rocks can possibly get. They don’t get any more real than they already are. Minded life is a little more like God by virtue of being in the “minded set” of things in the universe, things that share mind with God. Personally minded life is one step closer still. Personal mind has a power (several, see “Why Personality”) that non-personal mind lacks, it can elect to be “as much like God as possible”. Personal mind can choose that course as a purpose, something animals cannot do.

A rock cannot become more than a rock, and even a minded lion cannot choose to be a “better lion”, or for that matter be vegetarian. But personality adds a new dimension to the notion of developing perfection, hence enhanced reality, not only living with the personality as given, but by purposefully choosing to enhance it. A person can choose to become “more like God” than she was when she first awakened to her personal status. Only a human being, a personalized mind, can do this.

Values and Goodness

Those are the theorems. God is purposeful, minded, personal, and perfect. I have said nothing about being good. It is tempting to derive God’s necessary goodness from the axioms and theorems. Whatever else evil is, it is disruptive. Evil is characterized by destruction (of many sorts) and something positive must exist to be destroyed. So existence, being as such if nothing else, must be antecedent to evil. “God’s first thought” cannot therefore be evil and by the infinity and consistency axioms there is no evil in anything God does. We can call that good but it is a goodness that is, like perfection, true by definition, and unlike perfection, can conceivably be in conflict with our own judgement.

Perfection is abstract. It exists relative to some standard. Goodness has an emotional component that speaks for itself independent of a standard. God’s goodness is but indirectly related to our perspective, on what has goodness from our point of view. It is rather related to the notion that there is such a phenomenon as goodness in the first place.

The conviction that God is good, by our own standards, emerges first from human experience itself. The further claim that God must be good comes from that experience coupled with the axioms and theorems. The human (and not animal) experience to which I refer concerns what philosophy (since the Greeks in the Western tradition) calls VALUES. Over thousands of years of patient philosophical investigation, the values separate into three distinctive but related types; Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. They relate in that each expresses the others in some discriminable way. They are distinct because each express differently to mind.

It is an important phenomenological assumption of this theology that we detect, and not merely invent, values. But there is a distinction (rarely recognized in modern philosophy) between values and what has them. The values as such each have one another. Truth has both Beauty and Goodness for example. Besides having one another, each of the values also reflect into subjective experience in complex but distinct ways. No two persons experience (detect) them in exactly the same way analogous to how qualia vary (slightly in normal brains) from person to person.

What is important to keep in mind is that values appear to us, that is to subjective consciousness, as the conviction that these three qualities exist. There is beauty, truth, and goodness. Values as such are NOT about what is true, beautiful, or good. What appears to be true, beautiful, or good in our experience is what has (or might have) value.

Beauty expresses itself chiefly through the physical world. The perception, recognition, of Beauty in the physical world is something like a quale, like red, except not associated with individual sensory apparatuses, but with the presentation of the physical world reflected in subjective experience. It is because no two humans experience the value identically that we disagree about what is beautiful, that is, what has Beauty. We agree only that beauty exists, some things (characteristically objects or arrangements of objects) have it.

Truth is value expressed in mind as such. Propositions are true if they have Truth, but because we all sense Truth a little differently there will always be room for argument about what propositions, exactly, are true except in narrow cases, logical or mathematical propositions.

Goodness is value reflected in the acts and the motivations of persons. As non-minded life is only metaphorically purposeful, animals can be only metaphorically good. They can act in ways that, like purpose in non-minded life, are good from our anthropocentric viewpoint. Only persons can be good, can elect to be motivated by and act in accordance (applied act by act or to a life over-all) with what that person detects of Goodness; what she takes Goodness to be in a particular case. Like Truth and Beauty, those motives and acts vary thanks to our differential appreciation for what constitutes Goodness (and our skill in acting it out). Only persons can act for the sake of Values.

The values are all positive; they are a part of our universe and therefore have a relation to God. Like everything else, they must, directly or indirectly, come from God. Their detection, recognizing their reality, in human mind is therefore a detection (recognition) of some tiny facet of God’s character. Values reflect God’s character (however weakly perceived that reflection) into mind. Since God must be unified and consistent, the character of God reflected into mind must be God’s actual character. Not all of it by any means, but even that small part must be consistent with the rest. The quality of the values we recognize as such cannot be inconsistent with the rest. It is for this reason that God must be good.

Love, that is the Christian idea of agape, the desire to do good to others, is an attitude of persons that is the mereological sum of all three values. This love is not an emotion, but an expression of the flavor of all the values taken together; the flavor of Spirit!

If Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are God’s character reflected into mind individually and totalized as love why should only human minds detect them? I have noted before that a lion cannot choose to be more than a lion, but it also cannot choose to become less or other than a lion. Animal mind is impacted by truth, beauty, and goodness. But these are simply among the unified qualities, the gestalt, of animal consciousness. What it is like to be a lion includes its truth, beauty, and goodness, but they are transparent to the animal.

A lioness can choose between alternate zebras to hunt, but it cannot choose to do anything because it is good or beautiful or true. Lion mind has truth, beauty, and goodness, but only a human being can recognize their existence as such. Perhaps values recognition is something, a power, that personality adds to mind. In any case, clearly only human mind, only persons, can choose (and so act) based on recognition of the existence of the values.

Derivatives

The Problem of Evil

Does evil have a relation to God? How is there evil in a universe created by an infinite good God?  Evil is a negative, a disruption of logically prior being. The issue is complicated by the conflation (not least in modern philosophy) of accidents and error with evil. If two stars spiral together and obliterate each other, neither experiences anything let alone evil. If there was some planet, harboring living beings, close to the event, those living beings would be destroyed as soon as the gamma ray burst reached them (possibly many thousands of years after the event). Those living beings would experience the pain of being blotted out and thus evil by today’s common understanding but this is not exactly what evil is from a theological viewpoint.

Evil as such (as contrasted with the experience of its effects), like error and unlike accidents, begins in human mind alone. Unlike the Values, evil is not a phenomenon in physical space and time.  Among other things, unlike error (a bad choice made by a human mind) evil is a deliberate negation of values. Mind introduces evil into the world by freely choosing to negate the Values whether Truth, Beauty, or Goodness. Once such a choice is made and acted upon the typically negative consequences of the act on others we also call evil.

Animals experience, pain, but not that it is evil any more than they recognize that pleasure has goodness. Evil is a negative of goodness or truth, or beauty, just as cold is not something positive but rather the absence of heat. Only humans can distinguish evil as such because only humans discern values. But the unity, consistency, and infinity of God require us to recognize that evil is not something positive, but a relative lack, an absence or diminution of value.

There is an important difference in my analogy between cold and evil. In theory it is possible to have an “absolute absence of heat”, a temperature at which all molecular motion ceases; zero kelvin. But there is no analogous “absolute evil”. If evil is a relative absence of goodness, then an absolute evil would be some state of affairs that has no relation what-so-ever to God, and that is impossible. An existing (real) object, process, state of affairs must have some relation to God. A reality having no relation to God cannot exist. The further exploration of “the nature and explanation of evil” in theology is called theodicy. There is discussion of it in my books. Here I will note only that the solution to the “problem of evil”, rests on the distinction between accident, error, and genuine evil.

Holy Books and Teachers

No part of the above sketch relies on the contents of “The Bible” (Old or New Testament) or any other holy book. In this view there are no literally “holy books”, only books (some books) whose content is mostly about God. But these contents are the work of human beings. Some of this content is representative of God, that is consistent with the content of this introduction. Much is not.

If I can start from a premise of God’s infinity, self-causation, unity, consistency, and reason that a god who lacked any of these qualities would not be God, then so can others even down through history to times when people thought much more about God than they do now. But what we now can say in terms borrowed from mathematics, physics, philosophy, and logic could, in the deep but recorded past, be expressed only in poetic metaphor. He who “sends his rain upon the just and the unjust” is consistent and the phenomena of the physical world do not play favorites. He who “knows of each sparrow who falls from the sky” is omniscient, and so on.

There is also much content in the holy books that is not representative. God cannot ever have been angry or jealous (human traits). In particular, as concerns the New Testament, the Atonement doctrine, presently a pillar of every Christian variation, cannot be true. God’s relation to his creatures cannot have changed, from his viewpoint, from before the death of Jesus on the cross to a time after that event. Our view of our relationship to God can and should change, but there has been no variation from God’s side.

One can look at the Old and New Testaments together as a historical tracing of the evolving God concept from polytheism to a monotheistic “king of the tribe” to “the Father of the individual”. In between there is fictionalized history (more fictionalized the farhter back it goes), and outright mythology (the creation). All of what these ancient texts say about the mechanisms of the physical world is nothing but speculative mythology.

I note that technically this is also true concerning distant origins (big bang, emergence of life, mind) today though we can be much more sure of the foundations that underwrite present-day speculation. Some parts of holy books were written (in their time) for purely political purposes, to solidify the power of a nascent church by securing the loyalty of the flock. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelations is just such a piece.

Professional theologians also are not referenced here. Why not? Modern theology has lost its way, and become blind to these principles. For example, it has become more or less settled by philosophy that we, that is human beings, cannot make sense (do not have the necessary cognitive apparatus) of the idea that a God outside time could interact with the universe at a particular time and place if he so chooses. As a result, modern theologians, instead of accepting that the mechanism of such interaction is beyond our ken but God knows the trick, take the absurd view that if we cannot grasp such a thing it must be impossible and therefore God is not outside time and space; God is not omnipotent, or if he is, he is not omniscient, and so on. Today, such nonsense (such a god could not possibly be God) is taken seriously by most theologians and philosophers of religion. All false teachers!

These first principles enable distinctions to which modern theology is blind. For example, they allow us to distinguish between what is and what is not representative of God in the holy books that have come down to us through history; those that serve as the textual foundations of large religious institutions. First principles also let us distinguish between religion as such (the individual relationship to a personal God) and religious institutions like the Catholic Church (and all the other major religious institutions on Earth).

As holy books are just books, religious institutions are merely human institutions like corporations, governments, and other social organizations. They differ in claiming to be institutions dedicated to religion, but otherwise they are purely human and subject to all the errors (including interpretations of their founding texts) and potential evil (corruption in various forms) of all other institutions. To the extent that these institutions foster the personal relationship between individuals and God reflected in the social activity of the institution they are doing their job. To the degree that they claim a “special authority” to intercede between man and God, they are both unrepresentative of God and false.

Personality Survival

What about an “after life”? Supposedly the craving for immortality (even if impossible) has been among the drivers of all religion from the most ancient on down to the present-day. By some lights, all religion is nothing more than wishful thinking for no other purpose (ultimately) than grounding a mistaken belief in “life after death”. Theology must surely address this question. I do so in “What is ‘The Soul'”.

God and History

There is also the matter of the relation of God to human history and exactly what we are to do with our vague perception of values. Has God directly intervened in human history? How would we know? From the moment animal mind had the potential to recognize the values it became personal-mind and gained the power of choice based on values perception. That power has to be some part of the mechanism by which God’s purposes are brought about in time. See my “Why Free Will” for further discussion of this. All of this leads to a theological grounding of ethics and aesthetics, but if God is not to short-circuit free will his interventions must be subtle and few. What evidence might there be?

These are all subjects an advanced first principles theology can address. It has not been my purpose to demonstrate or prove anything here, but rather to state the first principles. I have briefly sketched the application of those principles to a few theological issues, and I have shown, I hope, that they can be useful in piecing together a new and better human appreciation of the otherwise constant relationship between human persons and God who is our Father.

John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are

selfie

I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.