June 2, 2011

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Miracles and Competence

I'm currently thinking about miracles and laws of nature, because I am working on revising this paper on the subject. Also on my mind is a paper of mine called "Divine Language, Unperceived Objects, and Berkeley's Response to Skepticism" which I will be presenting at the International Berkeley Society group session at the Eastern APA in December. It occurred to me that these two subjects of thought interact in an interesting way.

In the Berkeley paper, I argue that we should take quite seriously Berkeley's claim that the laws of nature form the grammar of a language (PHK 108-110), and I apply this to the problem of unperceived objects. I argue that when Berkeley says, "The table I write on, I say, exists, that is ... if I was in my study I might perceive it" (PHK 3) he means that the grammar of the language requires that God display my desk to me under the specified circumstance.

Now here's something interesting. I argue that this subjunctive conditional ("if I was in my study I would perceive my desk") is not to be interpreted as making a claim about God's will or intentions. It's making a claim about the rules of the grammar, and those rules are determined by the facts about the corpus of the language of perception. But that means that God could intend not to give me desk perceptions under those circumstances, i.e., to break the laws of nature. So the account is consistent with law-breaking miracles.

Now wait a minute, you might say, I just claimed that the facts about the grammar depend on the facts about the corpus. The fact that I go into my study and don't perceive my desk is a fact about the corpus, so if that actually happens (rather than merely being intended), then we should hold that the actual grammar is some different set of rules, one which permits me not to perceive my desk.

Well, not quite. Consider a dead language with a substantial corpus; say classical Latin. When philologists examine the corpus of classical Latin to determine the rules of its grammar, they don't come up with rules that capture every occurrence in the corpus. Instead, their aim is to capture 'literate' usage; they are perfectly happy to admit that occasionally a Latin writer (especially if he's not Cicero) might make a grammatical error. The same is true here.

This means, however, that, on this view, if there were law-breaking miracles God would be making grammar errors; he would be less than perfectly linguistically competent (in his own language that he invented!). Berkeley would not, I think, be happy with this result, but this is one of those issues where I've got to side with my other philosophical hero, Leibniz:

According to [the proponents of law-breaking miracles, especially Newton], God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time; otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. Nay, the machine of God's making is so imperfect according to these gentlemen that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it as a clockmaker mends his work, who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a workman, as he is oftener obliged to mend his work and to set it right. (First Paper to Clarke, tr. Clarke, sect. 4)

Other things being equal, law-breaking miracles appear to be evidence of divine incompetence.

Posted by Kenny at June 2, 2011 9:46 AM
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Is it possible that God could intentionally break laws that he created purely for the purpose to show his dominion over them?

To use the language analogy, we humans often break* the laws of grammar intentionally. Breaking the rules of grammar demonstrates many things, such as the lack of our ability to foresee all the needs of grammar, the mutability of our situation, and all sorts of characteristics that don't apply to God. However, our ability to break or at least change the rules of grammar demonstrates our creative power and dominion over grammar.

So, my question is, if God "breaks" the laws of nature, does it necessarily mean all the things I listed above (thus meaning, as you say, that he is incompetent), or could God break the laws of nature purely to demonstrate his dominion over it?

*You can call it whatever you want--break the rules, invent new rules, discover rules that we didn't know about before--but the point is that we intentionally use language in ways that don't conform to established principles such that the usage cannot accurately be called an "error," as if we didn't know the proper way to use language.

Posted by: pferree at June 3, 2011 7:01 AM

Right. So, in the context of arguing that the laws of nature are (literally) the rules of a grammar, Berkeley writes, "And as it is very possible to write improperly, through too strict an observance of general grammar-rules, so in arguing from general rules of nature it is not impossible that we may extend the analogy too far, and by that means run into mistakes" (PHK 108). This might just mean that sometimes we are wrong about the sphere of application of a law - for instance, when, in Berkeley's day, it was thought that Newtonian mechanics applied to literally everything, rather than being an approximation valid in a certain domain. But an alternative interpretation is that Berkeley is drawing attention to the fact that good writers sometimes intentionally break the normal rules of grammar to get the readers' attention, or something. So Berkeley might claim that law-breaking miracles are something like that.

Posted by: Kenny at June 3, 2011 9:22 AM

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