Archive for November, 2015

Deism, Anthropomorphism, and Religion

I’m just beginning to think about a reference article on deism that I’m writing for the Ian Ramsey Centre’s Special Divine Action Project and it has me thinking about a rather curious phenomenon in early modern philosophy and religion: the complex interplay between deism and theological anthropomorphism.

Presently, the term ‘deism’ is associated with the ‘absent watchmaker’ picture of God: a highly anthropomorphic conception of a divine engineer whose prime concern is the elegant mechanical design of the universe rather than moral qualities. This is a conception shaped by 18th century Anglophone deists. However, in his large and extremely carefully researched study Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel makes a compelling case for the very significant influence of Spinoza on early modern radical thought. Along the way, he shows that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries Spinoza was frequently taken as the paradigm deist. This led to the frequent allegation that all deists were really atheists (as Spinoza was alleged to be), or at least well on their way to atheism. Now one of the most prominent features of Spinoza’s thought is his opposition to any degree of theological anthropomorphism. For instance, in the appendix to Part I of the Ethics, Spinoza famously argues that any attempt to see teleology in nature involves an objectionable form of anthropomorphism.

Here’s a curious thing about this situation: classical philosophical theology – especially as found in the Thomistic tradition – is also staunchly opposed to theological anthropomorphism, a fact which Spinoza often exploits rhetorically. Indeed (as Lewis Powell emphasized to me in a long ago conversation), it turns out that Spinoza’s ‘God or Nature’ satisfies nearly all of the nominal definitions of ‘God’ given by classical theologians before him! ‘God or Nature’ is pure act, a being with infinite perfections, a being than which none greater can be conceived, etc.

What Spinoza has in common with later anthropomorphic deists is the denial of all forms of special divine action, including special revelation, and the advocacy of a religion based purely on reason. (Some deists were somewhat more moderate.) For Spinoza, because notions like choice cannot be applied to God or Nature in any sense traditional religious affirmations are not analogical truths but rather sheer nonsense. Spinoza argues that this is a natural consequence of taking seriously the classical notion of God as infinite being.

For those who regard themselves as defenders of traditional religion, this leads to a serious tension: the affirmations of classical philosophical theology have been set in opposition to central religious affirmations. Pay attention to the anti-Scholastic remarks of very religious early modern philosophers like Malebranche and Berkeley and you’ll notice that they are at least as much theological as philosophical: classical philosophical theology becomes dangerous because of the suspicion that it ultimately collapses into Spinozism. (Leibniz is a special case whom I will not try to discuss here.)

This tension is at work in a big way in the dispute between William King and Anthony Collins. In the Sermon on Predestination (1709) King thinks that he is defending traditional religion by advocating a version of the doctrine of analogy. Collins’ official position in his response (A Vindication of the Divine Attributes, 1710) is anthropomorphic deism. From this perspective – a perspective that maintains that God is wise in the same sense as Socrates only more so, and that God chooses for reasons just like we do – Collins alleges that King (NB: Archbishop King) is really an atheist, or at best an agnostic, since King is not in any position to affirm “the Being of God, or which is all one, the Existence of any Being that is really conformable to our Conceptions of God” (p. 17), since King holds that the divine attributes are in themselves unknown and unknowable to us being grasped merely by analogy.

At the same time, the anthropomorphism of Collins’ reply leaves him likewise open to the charge of atheism not only because some might think (as Berkeley did think) that he is insincere, but also because Collins’ God is not wholly transcendent and wholly other as the God of classical philosophical theology. Accordingly, a Thomist (for instance) would be likely to think that Collins’ God is much more like a pagan deity than a monotheistic God.

In the early modern period, it was widely held that Hobbes, Spinoza, and their ilk were a threat to religion and therefore a threat to social stability. But what is religion, and what constitutes a threat to it? Setting up Spinozism, on the one hand, and anthropomorphic deism, on the other, as the alleged threats to religion helps to put this question in a clearer light and to show just how varied were the answers to it. (Also, if we could figure out what religion is then maybe we could figure out why religion – and religious uniformity – was supposed to be so important to social stability.) Is the anthropomorphic deist preferable to the Spinozist? Or is the difference between them really even important? Collins, like Spinoza, denies the existence of human free will. (So does Hobbes.) Is that the real threat to religion?

Berkeley defends a frankly anthropomorphic conception of God and gives this conception a central place in his system. (For defense of this claim and examination of its connection to the King-Collins dispute, see this paper.) Malebranche has a much more Neoplatonic conception of God, which leaves him open to charges of Spinozism. (He sometimes seems to identify God with that infinite intelligible extension.) Scholars have noted (indeed, in the texts it is almost impossible not to notice) the openly religious aims of Berkeley, Malebranche, and other early modern philosophers. But I am increasingly convinced that not enough attention has been paid to the question of what precisely ‘religion’ amounts to for these philosophers. What are they trying to defend, what sorts of views are seen as threats, and why? The answers are not simple, but fortunately these philosophers have left us a lot of text on the subject. The details of Malebranche’s Augustinian spirituality and Berkeley’s populist latitudinarian Anglicanism merit further exploration (and they’re not the only ones).

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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CFP – HOPOS 2016

June 22-25, 2016, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA


Keynote Speakers

Karine Chemla, REHSEIS, CNRS, and Université Paris Diderot

Thomas Uebel, University of Manchester

HOPOS: The International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science will hold its eleventh international congress in Minneapolis, on June 22-25, 2016.  The Society hereby requests proposals for papers and for symposia to be presented at the meeting.  HOPOS is devoted to promoting research on the history of the philosophy of science. We construe this subject broadly, to include topics in the history of related disciplines, in all historical periods, studied through diverse methodologies. In order to encourage scholarly exchange across the temporal reach of HOPOS, the program committee especially encourages submissions that take up philosophical themes that cross time periods. If you have inquiries about the conference or about the submission process, please write to Maarten van Dyck: maarten.vandyck [at] ugent.be.


To submit a proposal for a paper or symposium, please visit the conference website: http://hopos2016.umn.edu/call-submissions

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Conference of the European Society for Early Modern Philosophy and the British Society for the History of Philosophy.

When: Thursday 14th April to Saturday 16th April, 2016.

Where: Birkbeck College London and Kings College London

Life and Death in Early Modern Philosophy

During the early modern period, upheavals in science, theology and politics prompted philosophers to grapple with two highly-charged questions. What are the limits of life? What are the possibilities of life? Pursuing the first, they probed the relation between life and death. What is it to be a living thing? What distinguishes life from death? In what sense, if any, do living things survive death? Exploring the second question, they turned their attention to the character of a truly human life. What is it for human beings (or particular kinds of human beings) to live well? What role does philosophy play in this process? Is living well an individual project, a political one, or both?

Each of these themes has recently attracted renewed interest among historians of early modern philosophy, and the conference aims to explore them as broadly as possible. The program will be comprised of invited speakers and speakers drawn from an open call for papers. Please see below for details

Confirmed Plenary Speakers:

Michael Moriarty, University of Cambridge, UK

Martine Pécharman, ENS

Ursula Renz, Alpen-Adria-University Klagenfurt, Austria

Lisa Shapiro, Simon Fraser University, Canada.

Mariafranca Spallanzani, University of Bologna, Italy

Charles Wolfe, University of Gent, Belgium

Call for Papers:

To make sure that everyone who wants to submit an abstract for this conference has an opportunity to do so, we are extending the deadline for submission until 30th November, 2015. Submissions are invited from researchers of all levels, including Ph.D. students, and on any aspect of the conference theme.

To submit, please email an abstract – maximum 800 words and anonymised for blind review – to Susan James (s.james@bbk.ac.uk). The heading of the email should be ‘ESEMP/BSHP abstract’ and the email should contain the author’s details (name, position, affiliation, contact details).

Scholars who plan to attend the conference should register by emailing the organizer, Susan James (s.james@bbk.ac.uk) by 7th March 2016 to give us an accurate idea of numbers.

Further details about registration and funding will be posted in November.

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Response to Sydney Penner

[The following is by Stephan Schmid. I am merely posting it on his behalf. — Sydney]

I am impressed about the carefulness and accuracy with which Sydney Penner extracted my rationale for doubting that Suárez’s defense of final causality in God and (inanimate) nature is consistent by Suárez’s own standards. In case you have not read Penner’s discussion of my critical reconstruction of Suárez’s theory of final causation, you should do so now: here is part 1 and here part 2 of his discussion. As Penner succinctly points out, my criticism on Suárez’s account of natural teleology comes in three steps:

(1) Final causation in the operations of natural agents is supposed to derive from the final causation involved God’s external (or transeunt) actions (of concurring with these natural agents).

(2) External actions inherit their final causality from internal (or immanent) acts of will, which are primarily subject to final causation insofar as they are influenced by ends.

(3) As a perfect being, God is not subject to any kind of influence at all, and so there is no final causation in God either.

These three claims entail that there can be neither any final causation in God’s external actions nor (for that matter) in the operation of natural agents. Both, Suárez and Penner, want to avoid my problematic conclusion by denying (2). In God’s case, they argue, the final causality of his transeunt actions need not be inherited from the final causality involved in his immanent actions. I doubt, however, that this move is legitimate. Or to put it in more neutral terms: that this move can only be made at the prize of equivocating on the notion of a final cause. For if ends only qualify as genuine final causes to the extent that they exert a distinctive kind of influx (as Suárez teaches us in DM 12.2.4), the ‘final causes’ in God’s actions must be ‘final causes’ in a very different sense as they are not due to any kind of influx.

As Penner notes, he is inclined to react to my worries with “fear and trepidation”. And I can well understand him. God, especially the Christian one, is notoriously difficult to understand, so better not to step into these muddy waters in the first place. One might turn Penner’s concern even into an objection against my criticism at Suárez’s theory of final causality. That things become murky with respect to God is something we knew all along, and so it comes not as a surprise that the final causality of God’s actions is difficult to understand as well. So, judging Suárez’s whole theory of final causality on the grounds that it has difficulties to account for final causality in God’s actions is neither fair nor particularly revealing: just everyone has these problems.

Let me first respond to this objection before turning to Penner’s own, more benevolent questions about my critical assessment of Suárez’s theory of final causality in God and nature.

First of all, I do not think that everyone has problems to reconcile God and final causality in the way Suárez does. Consider Ockham, for instance, who, according to my reading, defends a counterfactual account of final causation according to which a G qualifies as a final cause of an agent’s action A, if this agent loves or desires G, and would not perform A, if s/he did not love or desire G. I see no difficulty whatsoever in applying this theory to God. Accordingly, I think it is all but unrevealing to see that Suárez runs into problems with his account of final causality when it comes to accounting for the (presumed) teleology in God and nature. To the contrary: it shows that Suárez conceived of the notion of a final cause in a way, which made it difficult for him to apply it for the explanation of the kind of phenomena for whose explanation it was originally introduced. This is not only instructive for understanding Suárez’s conception of causality, but also for understanding the reluctance of many early modern philosophers to accept something like a distinct form of final causality at all.

Nor do I think that my critical stance against Suárez is unfair. I do not confront Suárez with these difficulties out of sheer exegetical malice. Rather I turn to the topic of final causality in God because Suárez himself teaches that the final causality in nature is due to the final causality involved in God’s transeunt actions of concurring with natural agents. If we take Suárez philosophically serious, as I think we should, we have to take a closer look at the final causality in God in order to understand his account of natural teleology.

Let me now turn to Penner’s specific questions.

Ad 1. Penner rightly points out that in his DM 27.1.11, Suárez argues that efficient and final causes are causes in a univocal sense, as “they both properly and intrinsically agree with the nature of a cause”. Now, this sets a difficulty in its own right since Suárez wants to equally abide by the “common view that the nature of the cause is not univocal, but analogical” (DM 27.1.9). (To be sure, Suárez thinks that this is no difficulty at all since he takes it to be non-contradictory to hold that “a name applies analogically to a plurality, yet univocally to some of its members” (DM 27.1.11). But it is at least an open question whether Suárez is right on this score – and Jakob Fink has made a strong case to the effect that Suárez is not).

Be this as it may. Let us grant Suárez that final and efficient causes are ‘causes’ in a univocal sense of the term. How does this affect his account natural teleology? Well, not in a way which leaves him better off with respect to my criticism. Recall my argument: I conclude that Suárez’s account of natural teleology (1) is problematic since it is incompatible with two other claims he endorses – viz. (2) and (3). And the incompatibility of these three claims is not affected if final causes should exert the very same kind of influx as efficient causes do.

One might perhaps want to take the univocity of efficient and final causes as a cue to bail Suárez out of my problem by arguing against (3). We could argue that just as God has from eternity willed what he wants, he has also always been attracted by what he wants – and thereby he has always been subject to the final causality exerted by his desired objects such that there are genuine final causes of God’s immanent actions after all. I take this to be a promising way for a Suárezian to go (even though it is not open to Suárez, who almost explicitly states (3) in DM 23.9.5.). One should note, however, that this suggestion does not depend on the univocity of efficient and final causes. The thought that God might have been attracted by his desired objects from eternity does not loose its plausibility if we think that the the attraction exerted by his desired objects constitutes a different kind of influx than the action of an efficient cause. Thus, my overall verdict remains: The dialectical situation for Suárez’s defense of final causality in nature does not depend on the question as to whether final and efficient causes are ‘causes’ in the univocal sense or not.

Ad 2. Another suggestion for bailing Suárez out is by applying a slightly thinner notion of final causality according to which “final causality … only consists in this dependency which the action has by the agent having thus ordered it to the end” (DM 24.2.12). As Penner rightly points out, on this thinner notion there arguably is final causality in God’s transeunt actions: after all, these actions depend on God’s ends insofar as he performs these actions in view and for the sake of his ends so that God would not perform his actions if he did not pursue the ends he does in fact pursue.

The crucial question is whether this thinner notion of final causality is a legitimate notion of final causality. Here is my reason for doubt. In his DM 12.2 Suárez takes great pains to distinguish genuine causes from other explanatory principles – like “privation and all accidental causes, which do not per se confer or infuse being in another thing” (DM 12.2.4). As Suárez points out, the distinctive feature of causes consists in their influx by which they confer being to the things they cause. Accordingly, causation for Suárez must be something like ‘the communication of being’ which is more than mere ontological dependence in the sense suggested above. For if the fact that A causes B could be reduced to the fact that B could not exist unless A exists, privations and necessary conditions (or “sinequanon-causes) would qualify as genuine causes, too – and Suárez clearly denies that they are. Thus, a thin notion of (final) causality that is spelled out in terms of ontological or counterfactual dependence is too thin to establish a legitimate notion of (final) causality for Suárez.

Ad 3. What in reality is this metaphorical motion by which an end attracts the will? Suárez is clear (in DM 23.4.8) that this motion occurs simultaneously with the will’s action of aligning itself with the end in question. But should we go further and say that will’s being attracted by its end and the will’s alignment with this end are in fact one and the same process, which is described in two ways? In my view, Suárez suggests so quite clearly, saying that “one and the same action of the will is caused by the end and by the will itself and insofar as it is ‹caused by› the will it is efficient causality, but insofar as it is ‹caused by› from the end it is final causality” (ibid.). In acts of will, then, instances efficient and final causation are but conceptually distinct. We should note, however, that the distinction between efficient and final causation is no arbitrary conceptual distinction (a distinctio rationis ratiocinantis, to use Suárez’s own terms), but a conceptual distinction that tracks a real feature of reality (a distinctio rationis ratiocinatae): The efficient causality of the will (consisting in the will’s sponateneous alignment with an end) describes another aspect of a performed choice than the final causality exerted by the end (by appearing attractive to the will). What is more, these two aspects of our choice serve to answer different questions. With respect to the will’s efficient causality we can explain why we were able to make a choice in the first place, while we can explain our particular choice by appealing to the end, which seemed most appealing or attractive to us. Nonetheless, these two causalities or ‘motions’ are not two separate entities but inextricably united in one single act of choice. (In this respect it is telling that Suárez also talks about the end’s ‘concurrence with the will’. For an end’s concurrence with the will seems to be analogous to God’s concurrence with the actions of his creatures insofar as like in the case of the final cause’s concurrence with the efficient causality of the will, God’s concurrence and the action of his creature are united in one single action (cf. DM 22.3.2)).

Ad 4. Suppose that I am right and that a consistent Suárezian cannot hold that there is (genuine) final causality in nature. My Suárezian might of course still claim that there is teleology in nature since everything happens for a purpose. My Suárezian would just insist that we need not to appeal to genuine final causality in order to explain that things happen for a purpose. This Suárezien will of course disagree with an Aristotelian who thinks that there is unproblematic final causation in the natural world, which is not mediated by God. Penner’s deep question is: What exactly does their disagreement consist in? Do they disagree about the concept of a final cause (of what it takes something to be be a final cause) or do they disagree about the metaphysical question as to what natural agents are like and how they work? This question is difficult to decide. – Especially in light of Quine’an considerations to the effect that we cannot strictly distinguish between conceptual and metaphysical questions in the way Penner seems to presuppose. In fact, I think it is impossible to pinpoint the ultimate disagreement between my Suárezian and the Aristotelian clearly on either the conceptual or metaphysical side of their dispute. To begin with, it is not even clear to me whether it is helpful to say that there is a ‘conceptual’ disagreement about final causes between my Suárezian and the Aristotelian. Rather than just disagreeing about the concept of a final cause, they disagree about the right concept of a final cause or about the nature of final causes – and this disagreement is as metaphysical as it can get.

Nonetheless, Penner’s distinction between metaphysical and conceptual questions is clear enough and definitely helps to get a better grip of the stakes of their debate. It is a great question! Let me address it by starting with the things that are safe to say. My Suárezian and the Aristotelian have diverging views on both sides of the dispute: On the more conceptual side, my Suárezian thinks that final causes must exert a distinct kind of influx in order to qualify as genuine final causes, while the Aristotelian defends no such constraint. On the more metaphysical side of their dispute, my Suárezian thinks that natural agents can only act thanks to God’s concurrence and that all their actions are ultimately manifestations of God’s providential plan for the universe. The Aristotelian, by contrast, shares none of these (metaphysical) views. She just thinks that natural substances have by their very nature certain ends or goals which are good for them and which they naturally strive to realize.

Now, the philosophically interesting question is how these sets of views relate to each other. There are in particular two interesting questions to ask: (i) How do the Aristotelian views relate to the Suárezian ones? And (ii) how does the more conceptual view of the Suárezian relate to his more metaphysical views?

Let me begin with question (i): As my Suárezian would think about the case at hand, he would argue that his views provide a theory for the things that the Aristotelian just takes for granted. Of course things have a natural good, which they strive to realize, my Suárezian would say, but how should we account for their ability to do so? How do these natural substances “know about their goods”? – My Suárezian thinks that the only satisfying way to answer these questions consists in integrating the Aristotelian views into a Christian framework by supplementing them with his views about God’s concurrence and providence. What is crucial for understanding the debate between Suárez and the Aristotelian on natural teleology is that Suárez and my Suárezian think that there is more to be explained where the Aristotelian thinks she has already hit on explanatory bedrock (given by the fact that natural substances just have natural goals which they strive to realize). And one important reason for Suárez and my Suárezian to think that there is more to be explained here is that they hold that ends or goals only qualify as genuine final causes if they exert a distinctive kind of influx.

Answering the second question (ii) is more difficult. This is because my Suárezian holds that natural teleology has nothing to do with (genuine) final causes, but is simply due to God’s providential concurrence with natural agents. Accordingly, his views about the nature of final causes and God’s providential concurrence are more or less independent and do not combine for an account of natural teleology, as a part of which they would mutually support each other. We should thus turn to his Suárezian cousin whom we encountered in my response to Penner’s first question (Ad. 1). This Suárezian, recall, thinks that natural agents act for the sake of certain ends because God’s concurs with them as a result of being influenced by these ends (from eternity). For this Suárezian the claims mentioned above – viz. (a) that final causes exert a distinct influx and (b) that natural agents can only act for the sake of an end thanks to God’s providential concurrence – are part of a consistent theory of natural teleology. It is with regard to this theory where it is illuminating to ask about the explanatory connection between the more ‘conceptual’ claim (a) and the more ‘metaphysical’ claim (b). However, it is hard to tell which of these two claims enjoys explanatory priority over which. Perhaps there is not even a clear priority here. Acting on a conception of final causation (a) according to which final causes need to exert a distinct influx makes it natural to take cases of rational agency, where agents are attracted by the ends they represent, as paradigmatic cases of final causation. And from this it is only a short step to claim that the final causality in non-rational agents must be mediated by the activity of a rational agent – and (b) is an interesting way to cash out this claim. Conversely, if you want to defend (b) that the teleological organization of nature is due to the providential concurrence of God, life is easy if you can claim that final causes (or explanatory ends) are primarily grasped and realized by rational agents. (For this allows you to argue that that natural teleology must be mediated by rational agency – of which divine concurrence is a species). And claiming (a) that ends can only become explanatorily relevant if the exert an attracting influence on the agents that can recognize these ends is a good way to make sure that only rational agents can be immediate subjects of final causation.

In disputes about natural teleology more conceptual questions about what genuine teleology consists in and more metaphysical questions about what the world is like seem to be more closely connected than in many other disputes. This is also evident in contemporary debates about whether Darwin has finally rejected natural teleology or rather vindicated natural teleology on a naturalistically acceptable basis. Similarly, late scholastic and early modern debates about natural teleology involve both, more conceptual questions about what final causes are or even whether there can be genuine final causes at all, as well as more metaphysical questions about the structure of the natural world. And it is precisely the intricate entanglement of these two kinds of questions which makes it often hard to decide to what extent these authors denied teleology in nature or not. At the same time, it makes the study of the history of teleology particularly philosophically valuable. It teaches us how intimately conceptual and metaphysical questions can be linked with each other.

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Reading Arash Abizadeh’s recent “The Absence of Reference in Hobbes’s Philosophy of Language” reminds me of something that puzzles me about early modern philosophy of language. Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

If you look at medieval scholastic theories of language, you find repeated mention of signification and supposition, two semantic features of terms. When you look at famous early modern discussions of language, you find discussions of signification, but seem to find no mention at all of supposition.

Thus Hobbes talks at length in the Elements of Law, Leviathan, and De Corpore about signification, but not at all about supposition. Locke, to give just one other example, develops a theory of signification, not of supposition, in Book III of his Essay concerning Human Understanding. (He does occasionally use the words ‘supposition’ and ‘supposing’, but meaning something else by those terms.)

Abizadeh argues that the absence of a theory of supposition is telling about Hobbes’s views:

he conspicuously abandoned the theory of “supposition,” which was the intellectual apparatus used in theories of language prevalent before him to express what corresponds to our contemporary notion of reference, i.e., the notion of an analytically irreducible semantic relation between words and things (objects) (Abidazeh 2015, p2).

That is, Abidazeh takes Hobbes’s abandonment of supposition to be evidence of his abandonment of reference. I wonder, however, how much the rejection (or ignoring) of supposition shows about Hobbes in particular. After all, that rejection seems to have been pretty widespread. Clearly the theory of supposition went away. But when did it go away?


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