March 19, 2007

Rational Atheism Entails Rational Solipsism?

In the Fourth Dialogue of Berkeley's Alciphron, Alciphron the "Free-Thinker" challenges Berkeley's spokesman, Euphranor, to present a proof of the existence of God. Alciphron, however, lays down some quite stringent conditions:

First then, let me tell you I am not persuaded by metaphysical arguments; such, for instance, as are drawn from the ideas of an all-perfect being, or the absurdity of an infinite progression of causes. This sort of arguments I have always found dry and jejune; and, as they are not suited to my way of thinking, they may perhaps puzzle, but never will convince me. Secondly, I am not to be persuaded by the authority either of past or present ages, of mankind in general, or of particular wise men, all which passeth for little or nothing with a man of sound argument and free thought. Thirdly, all proofs drawn from utility or convenience are foreign to the purpose. They may prove indeed the usefulness of the notion, but not the existence of the thing. Whatever legislators or statesmen may think, truth and convenience are very different things to the rigorous eyes of a philosopher. (4.2)

Euphranor takes up the challenge by examining in 4.3-4.4 Alciphron's general epistemology in order to form his arguments from this basis. Ultimately, Euphranor takes up a very interesting strategy, arguing in parallel with Alciphron's stated reasons for believing in human beings, and concluding by returning this challenge to Alciphron:
Be pleased to recollect the concessions you have made, and then show me, if the arguments for a Deity be not conclusive, by what better arguments you can prove the existence of that thinking thing which in strictness constitutes the free-thinker. (4.6)

What Berkeley wants to show is that to whatever degree belief in other human minds is rational, belief in God is at least equally rational. Berkeley considers two arguments for this, but there are more. Here, sketched briefly, are a few common explanations for belief in human minds, with the corresponding arguments for the existence of God. The first two arguments are from Berkeley.
  1. Argument from perception. We see human bodies. They move about in apparently intelligent ways, with apparent goals and desires, etc., therefore we conclude that there are minds behind them. But the whole physical universe, something much larger than a human body, likewise moves, and likewise appears to have purpose and direction. (The standard teleological argument, more or less.)

  2. Argument from language. We know human minds exist because other human beings speak to us and say intelligent things. But our perceptions of the physical world also have all the relevant characteristics of language, and it is God who speaks to us through the world. (See Alciphron 4.6ff. and David Kline, "Berkeley's Divine Language Argument" in E. Sosa, ed., Essays on the Philosophy of George Berkeley, reprinted in David Berman, ed., Alciphron in Focus.)

  3. Incorrigible/Self-Evident Belief. We know that other human beings exist by the "natural light;" it is a "clear and distinct idea." Then why should we not know God in the same way? (See Descartes' Meditations.)

  4. Properly Basic Belief. Belief in other persons is properly basic in some sense other than the classical foundationalist one. It is one of the beliefs on which we base all others. Then why should we not believe in God in the same way? (See all the works of Alvin Plantinga.)

  5. Irrational Belief/Naturalism. Belief in other persons is rationally unjustifiable, but we can't help it, so we might as well just give in. Then how can you criticize those who irrationally believe in God? (Compare Hume's discussion of causality.)

Are there other such arguments? Is there an argument for other minds that can't be converted into an argument for God? These are all the arguments (well, some of them aren't really arguments) for belief in other minds that I can think of right off, besides Berkeley's peculiar argument about the correct interpretation of the divine language (which is at least to some degree a species of 1). The conversion seems to me to be pretty successful in most cases, though the language argument requires a lot of support (fortunately, Berkeley gives it a lot of support).

Posted by Kenny at March 19, 2007 1:20 PM
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