February 23, 2013

Berkeley, Analogy, Matter, and God

On May 15, 1709 William King, archbishop of Dublin, preached a famous sermon (it was really more of a lecture in philosophical theology with a Scripture quotation at the beginning, but this was not too unusual in the Anglican Communion at the time) entitled "Divine Predestination and Fore-knowledg, consistent with the Freedom of Man's Will." The sermon was published shortly thereafter in both Dublin and London and is therefore now available on Google books. (I have written about King before.) King considers three atheistic arguments: the argument from the inconsistency of divine foreknowledge with human freedom, the argument from the inconsistency of divine predestination with human freedom, and the problem of evil. King argues that all three of these problems arise from interpreting the ascription of properties to God literally, and that when these predications are interpreted analogically, as they ought to be, the inferences in the atheistic arguments do not go through. As an added bonus, when divine predestination is understood analogically, Calvinists and Arminians can both be right, (A lot of the political problems would have been solved if King had managed to convince anyone of this last point - indeed, although it no longer plays much of a role in secular politics, this dispute is still one of the driving forces in a lot of conflicts within various Protestant denominations.)

There is, however, a problem: King does not give anything like an adequate account of how analogical predication works, or how to reason with analogical predicates. He does at one point attempt to distinguish analogy from metaphor (sect. 21), but it looks like the distinction just amounts to the fact that the use of metaphor is optional, whereas analogy is the only way we can possibly understand the things we know by means of it. Both are equally far removed from literal discourse.

In 1710 the deist Anthony Collins published (anonymously) a critique of King's sermon under the title A Vindication of the Divine Attributes. (This one doesn't seem to be on Google; you can get it from Eighteenth Century Collections Online if your institution is subscribed.) Collins' central objection is that King has rendered divine attribute language inferentially inert: one cannot infer from any possible set of premises to the claim that God is wise, nor can one infer anything at all from the claim that God is wise. Thus King radically undermines the project of natural theology, and also makes it a matter of indifference whether God is wise or not, since nothing of interest (and, indeed, nothing at all) would follow from God's being wise.

In a 1710 letter to Percival (L&J 8:32), Berkeley endorses Collins' objection to King. (I don't have that volume handy, but if I remember correctly King is mentioned by name but Collins is not.) There is also evidence of a personal conflict between Berkeley and King in this period.

In Alciphron IV, Berkeley discusses the doctrine of analogy at length, and again repeats Collins' objection. The attribution to Collins is clearer in this case: the argument is attributed to 'Diagoras' and elsewhere in Alciphron views attributed to Diagoras are given citations to Collins' works. Crito, one of Berkeley's protagonists, describes King's strategy as a "method of growing in expression, and dwindling in notion, of clearing up doubts by nonsense, and avoiding difficulties by running into affected contradictions" (sect. 19).

All this by way of background. (For more details, see sect. 4 of this paper; unfortunately, most of this material is expected to be cut from the published version for reasons of length.)

This afternoon, I was reading Berkeley's Three Dialogues for the umpteenth time (at least), and noticed something I hadn't before: the dispute about matter in the first two dialogues parallels the argument about religious language I have just reviewed. In the first dialog, Hylas's various notions of matter are all shown to be contradictory. This parallels the atheistic arguments to which King was responding. In the middle of the second dialog, Hylas gives up on trying to give a consistent definition of matter and instead endorses what in theology is known as 'apophaticism': the view that besides saying that matter (God) is in general a being, all we can truly and literally say of it is what it is not (L&J, pp. 221-222). King endorses this view about God. Philonous complains that according to this last proposal 'matter' is "'something in general', which being interpreted proves 'nothing'" (L&J, p. 223). A little later, Hylas claims that Philonous has not shown matter (on the 'apophatic' conception) to be impossible. In response, Philonous insists that he has proved matter to be impossible in "the only proper genuine received sense" of the word 'matter' (L&J, p. 225). As for the 'apophatic' sense, it is absolutely immune to refutation, since "where there are no ideas, there no repugnancy can be demonstrated between ideas" and there are no ideas involved in the 'apophatic' sense of 'matter' (ibid.). (Berkeley has to be careful here, since a lot of reasoning doesn't involve ideas on his view, but that's another story for another day.) In essence, Hylas's last proposal insulates matter from contradiction by emptying the notion of matter of all content. This is the substance of Collins' objection to King.

Now, it should be noted that the same line of argument appears in the Principles (sects. 79-80); I do not know when exactly Berkeley made his last round of revisions on the Principles (though it appears from Berkeley's correspondence with Percival that the book was published in June; see Keynes's Bibliography, p. 15), nor when exactly Berkeley read Collins, so it is possible that Berkeley and Collins developed this line of argument independently. In any event, the letter to Percival attests that Berkeley did endorse the God version as well as the matter version in 1710, and in Alciphron (1732) Berkeley attributes that argument to Collins.

Noticing this parallel sheds interesting light on the famous 'Parity Argument' of the second dialog (L&J, pp. 231ff.). Berkeley must reject King's account of our theological concepts: if it's not good enough to give meaning to 'matter' talk, it's not good enough to give meaning to 'God' talk. And this, in fact, Berkeley does, insisting that "all the notion I have of God is obtained by reflecting on my own soul, heightening its powers, and removing its imperfections" (ibid.). The only 'analogy' involved, according to Berkeley's view in Alciphron is mathematical analogy, i.e. ratios: God's wisdom is to our wisdom as the infinite to the finite. 'Wise' has precisely the same meaning in 'God is wise' as it does in 'Socrates is wise,' although the difference in degree between the two cases is infinite. The theologically controversial thesis that some substantive predicates apply univocally to God and creatures thus plays a central role in Philonous's response to Hylas's Parity Argument.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad)

Posted by Kenny at February 23, 2013 4:59 PM
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