All Thought Begins with Faith

Tom Van Dyke, concerned that the road I’m traveling leads to skepticism and nihilism, asked me to state for the record whether anything is self-evident.  I stand by my answer–I’m not sure–but I’d like to expand upon it, having mulled over the question some more since answering.

I’m comfortable calling “self-evident” those propositions in which the predicate is contained in the notion of the subject, but aside from these, I’m inclined to say that there are no self-evident truths.  There’s nothing evident of itself unto our understanding.  I hold as self evident not justice, not the good, not being, not consciousness, not alterity, and not even the intelligibility of the universe.  Heck, not even nothingness.  Does this make me a skeptic or a nihilist?

I say no. Tom is right that we have to posit something in order to begin.  Thought has to start upon some first principles, but these needn’t be self-evident or provable or have any other sort of evidence for them.  Instead, we need faith to start the journey.  That’s right, folks; you can’t fly with only the one wing of reason.  You also need the wing of faith, whether you’re doing philosophy or science or any other discipline of reason.  Strict rationalism doesn’t work: it assumes what reason cannot provide to it.  Pure philosophy is a pipe dream: it has traces of what it would exclude.  Science is the same.

Now by faith I don’t mean the belief in God, although the faith needed to begin thinking and to come to know anything is not unrelated to religious faith.  Both hold to what cannot be proven or demonstrated.  They both imply belief in things unseen, belief without evidence.  You can call this act of faith “making assumptions” if you prefer, but it makes no matter.

In sum, for those of you who care, I avoid skepticism and nihilism by reason coupled with faith, not by appealing to self-evident propositions.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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125 Responses

  1. BlaiseP says:

    “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” we are told in the Book of Hebrews. I would argue a self-evident proposition can be constructed without any resort to this sort of faith.

    The problem resolves to falsifiability. I am entitled to believe in the Nicene Creed on the basis of faith but let us not put it in the category of self-evident truth. Even if I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth on the basis of tactile reality, it doesn’t save my argument. It cannot be falsified.

    Look, Aquinas went about like the Prince in Cinderella, trying to squeeze the stinky of foot of Reason into the glass slipper of Faith. It just didn’t work. It will never work. The original Cinderella story tells us of the two sisters who cut off their toes and heels to fit into that slipper and of the white bird which warned the prince to check those feet again. That’s what always happens in such circumstances: it’s always Reason which suffers when it’s shoved into the shoe of Faith.

    A self-evident proposition can be falsified. All this talk of pipe dream philosophy is bad thinking. Philosophy attempts to build a new shoe for the foot of Reason and Science is the art of Proof, forever purged by Doubt. Until a proposition is falsifiable, it is not self-evident.

    • GordonHide says:

      Hear Hear!

      • Tom Van Dyke says:

        FTR, Kyle, I don’t think you’re on the road “that leads to skepticism and nihilism.” I just hate to see you cede the arguments and the premises of discussion to those who are.

        In the end, the negators waste your time and you end up where you started…which is nowhere.

        • Ryan Noonan says:

          Assertion, ad nauseum. If you ever argue for a position, I might keel over and die. That should be reason enough for you alone, I would think.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          In some case, the skeptics and the nihilists have a point. I’m not a realist. Not a traditional one, anyway. As Derrida said, in the beginning is hermeneutics. We begin within interpretations of the universe already around us, shaping us and informing us. What we call reality is in a sense something of our own and others’ making because to interpret is to make something new.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Kyle, is man born a “blank slate” or with an “innate moral sense?” I was puzzling on that re this very good OP and discussion. These two ideas were flying around at the time of the Enlightenment and of the Founding.

            “Blank slate” seems to be the most scientific way, that we’re products of our conditioning and of the myths and words that come before us.

            Yet on the other hand, new scientific research suggests that something resembling an innate moral code—an instinct for cooperation [if not love, or justice]—is part of man’s evolutionary heritage. Those who had an “instinct” for cooperation, justice or “love” [whatever that is] were the ‘fittest.”

            And I still don’t know how you pomo your way to truth without relativism. I keep hearing that relativism is dead, but I detect the stench everywhere.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            I don’t know, Tom. I’ve always figured something of both, nature and nurture, so to speak.

            How do you pomo your way to truth without relativism? For the same reason you can have four inconsistent Gospel narratives without relativism: both we and truth are situated so that no one has a purely objective bird’s eye view of reality and every statement of truth is a creative interpretation of truth.

          • GordonHide says:

            @Tom Van Dyke

            I would say it’s virtually certain that we are not born a “blank slate” in moral terms. We are descended from a long line of social animals. These would have gone extinct had their propensity for co-operative behaviour been outweighed by their selfish instincts. This is a clear indication that we are born with a preponderance of co-operative tendencies. Put simply, our DNA makes us moral to some extent.

            Nevertheless one would do well to remember that biological co-operative behaviour is strictly limited to interactions within a fairly small group.

          • BlaiseP says:

            Any lawyer will tell you your worst witness is an eyewitness. Any two depositions taken related to the same incident will always produce two different accounts. That’s human nature. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you can’t even repeat the same story without some differences appearing.

            This isn’t really a problem of interpretation so much as a problem of recall. The four gospels are different in some respects, especially the events surrounding the Resurrection.

            As for the Tub Thumpers who smell the stench of Relativism here and there, the source of that stench could be their own unchanged socks. These Tub Thumpers would tell us of Truth, but they want to be the final arbiters of the telling of the tale: everyone else’s version is suspect. Though they say they hate PoMo, they’re the most guilty of it.

  2. Ryan Noonan says:

    There’s a trick here, I think, in that any number of things appear self-evident to me. Take the evidence of my senses, for instance. Obviously, we can go down the Cartesian rabbit hole, but prior to that, I have my sensory perceptions, and it’s only with the application of reason that I’m led to question those (and, sometimes, I find that they’re wrong! This is, incidentally, one of the places where I think Ayn Rand’s philosophy is both insightful and kind of off the rails…).

    There are lots of other things that seem self-evident to me, as well, but on reflection, these all appear to be internal states. The postmodernists asks, “What else could they be?” The postmodernist is engaged in a sensible project.

    In any case, where we go awry on these things is when we project those internal states outward, declare that they are nor merely self-evident to me, but self-evident in the world. I think Tom, not (just) to pick on him but because he’s also at the head of this post, very often ends up failing to communicate with his interlocutors because he doesn’t seem to understand this difference. He simply announces the self-evidence of a proposition and then declares anyone who disagrees a sophist. Although, more problematically, he tends to go on the attack against anyone who tries to mount an argument attempting to demonstrate the source of the confusion. I think, in particular, of the weird contentiousness you two had over the word “inference”, as if that word contains some evil juju rather than being a perfectly normal word used in interrogating rational arguments.

    • Homer Simpson: What are you inferring?

      Lisa Simpson: I’m not inferring anything. You’re inferring.

      Homer Simpson: Oh, that’s a relief.

    • More seriously,

      “very often ends up failing to communicate with his interlocutors because he doesn’t seem to understand this difference”

      I do think on some level we all are guilty of this. We–for example, me–tend to react viscerally to propositions that are very far outside of what we are willing to accept, and then we jump on the one who made the proposition with a very large degree of skepticism and challenge that borders on being uncharitable. I think I did that, for example, when Kyle was discussing the Declaration of Independence / Abortion controversy. (I also did that in a lot of Burt’s earlier posts about religion, to which I responded in a way that was really prissy and emotional. ‘Sorry about that, Burt.)

      I’m not trying to say you’re picking on anyone, Ryan (in fact, you make clear that you are not). I’m also not trying to excuse the behavior of anyone who does this, and some carry it to extremes that seem to close off any good faith discussion. I just think we all have some tendency toward this end, which I think is what you were saying to begin with.

      • Chris says:

        Not only are we all guilty of this, but it’s actually a basic and well-studied mental phenomenon: we assume people know what we know, and see what we see. Tom has simply turned this form of solipsism into an argument style.

        • Glyph says:

          Understood & treated properly, this phenomenon seems largely good at root and necessary to communication, as it would seem to be the roots of empathy (‘Hey, I feel bad when X happens…maybe you do too!’)

          Much (honest, non-deceptive) communication, and all of Art, is an attempt to get us to see through the eyes of others. Our language (in English at least, no idea about other languages) is littered with visual metaphors relating to knowledge-gain or communication (See my point? I saw the Truth like a blinding light. I saw this coming. I see where you are going with this. Etc. )

          • Chris says:

            I’m not sure it really helps communication. We have other systems that do empathy quite well without it, and other systems that are actually pretty good at figuring out where we have common ground. The failure to recognize that other people don’t know what I know just because I know it really doesn’t look like much of a help to me.

          • Glyph says:

            I didn’t say the phenomenon’s *misuse* is good. I said the phenomenon *itself* was probably a component of empathy.

            Step 1, I learn that others have thoughts and feelings and experiences too. This is good, without this I have no need to consider others at all.

            If I fail to move on to Step 2 (‘AND those thoughts and feelings and experiences, while somewhat like mine since we are all human, are also different from mine’) – that is where some problems comes in.

            Step 3 is of course, not only trying to get the other to see through your eyes, but attempting to see through theirs.

            This is all just yapping, I have no basis for any of this.

          • Chris says:

            Glyph, I suppose what I’m saying is that the phenomenon we’re discussing, and those involved in your step 1 are unrelated. That is, what fails in the phenomenon we’re discussing is not the empathy itself, but imputing empathy into knowledge representations. The empathy is independent, and comes well before the knowledge stuff as well as my inferences about what you might or might not know.

    • BlaiseP says:

      Self-evidence is just the last step in any truth-reduction, the reduction to tautology. Sensory input can be confirmed with a simple thermometer or gas spectrometer: no special cases need construction for proof of the senses. A leprosy patient’s injuries are the result of losing sensory nerves in his skin: he burns himself and doesn’t realise it. He is reduced to doing a Visual Self Inspection to periodically make sure he hasn’t injured himself.

      The Postmodernist is the Enemy of the Obvious. He looks at the leper’s lack of sensory perception, or the converse problem, the amputee suffering phantom limb syndrome and says (with perfect justification) perception isn’t quite as obvious as it seems. Furthermore, definitions are slippery things for language is constantly changing under our feet. If the Postmodernist questions the on-off nature of Truth and Falsity, he’s doing us all a huge service by negating our suppositions about what’s a dependable fact in any given set of circumstances.

    • patricia says:

      Ryan: “In any case, where we go awry on these things is when we project those internal states outward, declare that they are nor merely self-evident to me, but self-evident in the world.” Yes, but “I” exists in the world, so it is not ridiculous to assume that what is with-in is also with-out, at least somewhere in some ways. It becomes absurd only when what is found within is assumed to be all that is in the world. Or to do as the more rigid post-modernists, to declare that nothing with-out can be understood with anything that is with-in. Post-modernist thinking is sensible in that they understand that everything “I” can know is via me/myself/I , but it’s merely reverse egocentrism to assume that the ego is not part of the larger system and therefore cannot understand any of it.

      Pierre: If I remember correctly, Lisa Simpson said, “I’m not inferring anything. You infer, I imply.” More to the notion that there are connections but not necessarily conclusions. Not that Lisa knows anything, the little pipsqueak.

      • Pierre Corneille says:

        You may very well be right about the Simpson’s quote. I do remember laughing when I saw/heard it the first time.

      • Ryan Noonan says:

        I don’t think the disconnect between the inner and the outer is purely a postmodernist thing. Descartes and Kant were discussing it long before postmodernism was even a thing. To a certain extent, though, you’re right. It’s the assumption that what I see should be similar to what you see that saves us from the Cartesian rabbit hole. That’s some part of the faith that Kyle is talking about in the OP.

        It’s the transformation of that basis for communication into dogmatism that we should work harder to reject.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          It’s the transformation of that basis for communication into dogmatism that we should work harder to reject.

          That’s well said, Ryan.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Ryan, don’t attribute your flaws to me. You have no idea what I believe nor what I hold as self-evident. I’d say you are indeed a sophist, but you’re so far out of the game you’re not even that.

      The best thing you can do is stop getting personal with your bleats against me, read more, think even more, and write a whole lot less.


  3. James Hanley says:

    Tom Van Dyke, concerned that the road I’m traveling leads to skepticism and nihilism

    His concern, my hope!

  4. Boegiboe says:

    Humans come pre-programmed with the ability and desire to create full images of their surroundings inside their own minds for the purpose of constantly predicting and controlling the future. As a child becomes more adept at this, she can even create walking, talking, faithful images of the important people in her life. She does not know that it is merely her faith that makes her believe these images really are faithful, at least not to start with. That lesson requires a lot of failures of those images to match reality. The child either continually strives to perfect her internal images, or she despairs of finding any use for these images. Eventually, she learns to maintain images not just of the things and people in their world, but also of the concepts that allow her to judge the faithfulness of her various images. Among those may be whatever she calls the concept that those images, whatever state they’re in, are the best she’s got to work with when attempting to predict the future. I would call that concept faith, and I think it matches well with the concept in the OP. Faith is why we believe in our images at all; reason allows us to improve our internal world when we find it is imperfect.

    But I think this all means that faith defined in this way is instinctive and basic. Faith is pre-conscious. Faith is where we all come from as infants, and where we must reside most of the time throughout our lives. Bursts of reason allow us to improve our internal models of the world, and our minds learn to balance the need to operate on faith with the need to update our models. It is certainly possible to make a conscious effort to choose certain sources of information as more trustworthy than others (including our own perception), and perhaps this particular kind of faith is what most people mean when they use the word. But it seems to me that the concept called “faith” by the OP is the much broader concept we’re all born applying to all we experience.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Fascinating, Boegiboe. Thank you for this.

    • Michael Drew says:

      Yes, this was good. As far as I can tell, all we have to base the idea that our mental constructions of the world bear any representative relationship to the world itself upon is indeed a leap of faith of some (I think short, but positive) distance.

  5. James K says:

    I think there’s a qualitative difference between faith and making assumptions. Assumptions can be made based on how likely they are to be true, given what you already know. The most common example I come across is that science requires “faith” in a regular and predictable universe. But all our evidence tells us that the universe is regular and predictable. The very fact that we are able to have this conversation across the Pacific Ocean by means of a whole bunch of electrons running back and forward says there’s actually a whole bunch of regularity in the universe. Sure we could still be wrong about that, but right now our best evidence points to regularity and empiricism is all about apportioning one’s beliefs to one’s evidence.

    • patricia says:

      Yes, I don’t see either assumptions or suppositions as “faith”, either. To suppose something is to try it on. “Let’s see what happens if…” And assumptions are a reliance on patterns built by repetition of similar results. There is an aspect of faith in the latter but it is the kind that is in science: learned reliability.

      I see faith as projective, as are assumptions, but without the assurance of verifiable predictability. Faith is the plot we make up to pull a story together. We cannot do without it because it provides meaning for what we notice as well as what occurs over time. I have not yet met a pure nihilist or materialist, although they may be out there. I’ve only found lots of distancing phrases papered over unaddressed beliefs about how best to get along, most often a sloppy hedonism.

      • James K says:

        Another key difference is that people are encouraged to treat faith as profound and deeply interconnected with their identity. Assumptions are more tentative and can therefore be more easily change dint he face of contradictory evidence.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          In theory, assumptions can easily change, but when they’re the foundation for a complex worldview, you can expect some kicking and screaming long before change happens.

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        This captures why faith is a broader category than assumptions, but, as you say, there’s an aspect of faith to making assumptions.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      There is a distinction between faith and assumptions, but I maintain that to make an assumption is an act of faith. Faith isn’t necessarily made with absolutely no likelihood of truth. I would be unwise to put my faith in someone who notoriously deceives, for example.

      • patricia says:

        “Faith isn’t necessarily made with absolutely no likelihood of truth.”
        Agree. I actually don’t see how a healthy useful faith can ever be formed without likelihood of truth. It seems to me that faith is an olio: some parts apparent, some unproven, some distantly inferred, and some plain conjecture.

        To truly believe in God requires a blending of many accurate, tentative, inferred, conjectured ideas/experiences, all of which point the individual towards a Creator of a particular sort, which in turn brings a sense of purpose/meaning/plot to that individual’s understanding of life. I think that a different olio can bring one not to believe in a god at all.

        And yah, there are disastrously misplaced faiths. There is the faith that many Democrats hold for Obama. There is the faith that many Repubs hold for Free Markets. Just to be contentious :-}

  6. patricia says:

    Speaking faith’s path in economics, this post might (or not) be interesting to you all:

  7. CK MacLeod says:

    As a public service, since no one else seems to have pointed out that Mr. Cupp’s position on self-evidence reduces to the self-evidence of the non-existence of self-evidence, and thus makes himself the firmest possible believer in a natural law, the naturalness of no naturalness, just thought I should do so. Some will call this criticism sophistic, but that criticism also presumes a natural or self-evident truth, or law, or right.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Heh. Like the fideism of atheism, you mean?

      • CK MacLeod says:

        Right. Why should I believe in disbelief?

        • James Hanley says:

          Because there are a vast number of things you disbelieve in?

          • CK MacLeod says:

            Was writing elliptically – the ability to disbelieve in particular things isn’t the same as an ability or claim not to believe in anything.

          • James Hanley says:

            You seemed to be responding to the “atheism” comment, but atheism is a disbelief in a particular thing, not a claim not to believe in anything. So why not believe in atheism?

            I guess I’m totally turned around by what you’re trying to say here. Were you taking “fideism of atheism” seriously? Was it mean seriously? How does it lead to where you’re going?

    • Chris says:

      I remember this from every undergraduate philosophy course in which Descartes was taught: someone, as a public service, points out that too much doubt undermines itself. Except that Descartes doesn’t really doubt anything. He doesn’t doubt that he thinks, because in fact he doubts period. I think this is sort of where Karl is, except in a more opaque way. Yeah, Karl doesn’t see how anything can be self-evident, but he knows that he thinks, therefore we must start with something other than self-evidency. It’s not really an atheistic fideism (I’m not sure even your version equates to that), but instead a sort of extended cogito argument.

      • Stillwater says:

        Chris, that’s the comment I was gonna initially write about this topic. (Maybe I still will.) But the upshot is a distinction between finding the rational grounding for any action or belief, and doing what we all do when we don’t have our philosophical hats on, which is act without right, as LVW would say.

        Have you read Kripke’s book on Wittgenstein and Rule Following? That’s pretty much what I had in mind here.

        • Chris says:

          I have read Kripke’s book. For a long time, I really loved it.

          I’m sure for many, Kyle’s post reminds them of the whole private language debate of the 40s and 50s as well.

    • Stillwater says:

      I think all you’ve shown is that there is at least one self-evident belief that any system of thought must hold. But that’s not a refutation of empiricism, which doesn’t deny the existence of self-evident truths. If there is any justification at all for identity, it’s a priori and self-evident. Same goes for logical connectives, and the successor function, and others. Empiricism isn’t the view that there are no self-evident truths. It’s that there are no self-evident truths about matters of fact. To say that rights are a matter of fact, of course, begs the question against the rationalist. But the empiricist can challenge the rationalist on his accounting of right’s self-evidentness. And on the metaphysics. And the self-evidentness of the metaphysics. (I’ll leave aside that stuff.) But also, if the rationalist responds by giving a pragmatic justification of rights, then they’re conceding that they aren’t self evident, even tho rights (however they’re analyzed) may be necessary.

      (sorry about drifting into another topic there, CK)

  8. Patrick Cahalan says:

    There’s nothing wrong with establishing irreducible propositions. They don’t have to be self-evident to be irreducible.

    This is the part that I’ve gone around the maypole with Tom and Tim on a couple of occasions: if we agree that X is wrong, why X is wrong is not relevant to anything we derive from X. Murder can be wrong because of all sorts of reasons, but if we all agree that murder is wrong, we don’t need to “justify” that agreement, any more than mathematicians need to justify Euclidean propositions or otherwise when talking about geometry.

    Axioms are axioms. They’re what you build on. Whether they are self-evident to you or me or anyone or if they’re handed down or derived or whatnot, it doesn’t matter. Indeed, given a set of root principles, and some basic logic, you can work out a set of moral principles and then step back and look at them and say, “This looks workable” or “This doesn’t look workable”, and I’m not talking about Utilitarian-workable.

    Shoot, imagine the converse: murder is actually regarded as morally permissible. Now derive a moral system that’s like ours except with that principle. Do you get anywhere? No, you rapidly get a system of moral principles wherein you can’t interact with anybody.

    I’m pretty sure that a set of moral principles has to enable you to interact with others.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      PatC, non-foundationalism ala Richard Rorty; We’re as a ship at sea, no idea how we got here, the vaguest idea where we’re going. Since we all agree we have ‘rights,” let’s skip their foundations.

      All rights become assertions. Further, by discarding their foundations, we lose any chance of grounding them in their origin, and in their nature.

      And so, what began as the UN Universal declaration of Rights via the Thomist Jacques Maritain becomes a rationalization of tyranny and murder.

      It is positive “rights” such as these which McCarthy rightfully cautions against when he sees them pitted against “freedoms.”
      Yet to rail against the UDHR and “rights” in their entirety is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, thereby conceding a powerful moral narrative and tool for defending human dignity to the very “totalitarian” transnationalist elites McCarthy abhors.
      Rather, we should reclaim the UDHR, and the natural law-based negative rights contained therein, using them as a basis for defending of the unborn child and the natural family, while distinguishing between true, fundamental rights which the State is compelled to acknowledge from fabricated ones that can be manipulated. Such a reclamation project is what contemporary commentators on the UHDR such as Mary Ann Glendon and Habib Malik (the son of Charles) have attempted, and such efforts should be supported.
      How to separate the (negative rights) wheat from the (positive rights) chaff is made easier by the division of the UDHR – which as McCarthy notes is “merely hortatory, a tocsin, not a treaty,” and hence non-binding – into two treaties that are binding upon those nations who have duly ratified them: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
      The ICCPR is largely a charter of negative rights, which is why it is one of few major human rights treaties which the United States has ratified, while reserving against problematic provisions such as Article 20’s restriction on free speech. The U.S. has not, however, ratified the loosey-goosey ICESCR, which contains positive rights of the sort the old Soviet Union embraced while it denied the most fundamental of civil and political – or natural and negative – rights.

      The ICCPR and the rights espoused therein, and like portions of the UDHR, are part of the patrimony of all of us who defend true human dignity against counterfeits.

      • Patrick Cahalan says:

        Do you believe there are any positive natural rights, Tom?

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          I’m considering it, Pat. That man is a social animal is, um, self-evident. We do not raise ourselves.

          My problem with some of the encyclical teachings—and I agree with George Weigel that Benedict’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” is rather a duck-billed platypus: half communitarian but coming around to the reality of liberty and free markets—is the problem of government, not of “positive natural rights.”

          [Here’s some background by a lefty pal o’mine John Fea

          The liberty and free market part to me is the best way to serve “subsidiarity,” the devolution of power from Leviathan to the most local and personal level. I have great and grave reservations about Leviathan, as the Catholic bishops are discovering: the state may feed you and give you Obamacare, but it will also commandeer your religious conscience and make you pay not just for contraceptives, but inevitably gov’t financed abortions, it’s just a matter of the Bart Stupak “executive order’ at this point.

          So does “society” owe food shelter, and yes, even health care to all, as Benedict insists? Yes. Is the government the way to do it? Danger, Will Robinson, danger.

          This is why the Catholics and other religious got in the hospital business in the first place! Now, are we to make Catholic hospitals agents of the state, and declare their health care work is not of religious nature? Force them to abandon their moral system for the state’s???

          That’s absurd. You see why this is religious freedom thing is a big bugaboo with me. Without religious freedom, this “nation” is nothing but the sum of its laws, drifting toward tyranny.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            Tom, did you see my question regarding deference to religion on that other thread?

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            I just looked for it, Pat, but didn’t find it. I have found you willing to consider religious truth claims at least provisionally [If…then] as well as on the question of prevailing ethos [we HOLD these truths to be self-evident], which has made discussion with you about the Important Things very nourishing.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            Here’s what it boiled down to.

            Posited (TVD): Religious organizations deserve a special recognition and deference when religious beliefs conflict with proposed law.

            Now, you and I may quibble (severely) about what level of recognition and deference they deserve, but I think that’s an implementation detail. The underlying principle I don’t find objectionable.

            My question: given that there are religious organizations that do recognize gay marriage, isn’t it therefore obligatory for the state to recognize those marriages under the same principle of deference?

            The parallel: the legislative branch (bending the rules or no) passes DOMA/PPACA. Encoded in each is a principle of the State enforcing certain types of limitations on religious freedom(s). In both cases, the rationale can be given that the State has an interest in doing so (in the first case, the family has a particular status in civil society… and in the second, the citizen has a responsibility not to free-ride on the medical infrastructure, given we provide care to those who can’t pay).

            How do you square the circle between a stand against PPACA’s contraception coverage mandate on religious freedom grounds, and a stand *for* DOMA on civil society’s interest?

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            a) The fed gov’t is not obliged to recognize polygamy, for instance.
            b) Obamacare forcing churches to pay for contraception is coercion—“cooperation with evil” is how ethics puts it. We don’t make Quakers kill, never have. It’s a long-standing understanding of religious conscience.

            Further, I think this gov’t coercion is unnecessary for a couple bucks worth of pills, and is ideological tyranny far more than utility. I want Obama out just for this.

            As for DOMA, society-as-gov’t can democratically decide its values, or decide best utility, or the combo of both. Pass gay marriage, don’t pass gay marriage. The Constitution is silent on the issue.

            As it is with abortion. That the baby is a person with unalienable rights is to me more self-evident [at least at some later point in the pregnancy] than the mother’s ‘right” to abort it. But I concede it’s a close enough call that the people rather than the courts should decide—search their souls and may God have mercy on them.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            a) Why not? Under what principle are we allowed to refuse to recognize a religious marriage?

            If I go looking for case law for Mormons for Polygamy vs. the State back prior to the migration to Utah, am I going to find a written decision where the judge says he’s ruling against polygamy because his own religious values say so?

            Hm; hey, are we obliged to recognize a Shtar Tena’im? If not, why not? Can divorce laws for a state supersede the penalties described therein? (Honestly, I have no idea, do they? Where’s Burt when you need him?)

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            No, that riff doesn’t work, Pat. The state is not bound by the church or vice-versa.

            As Scalia points out, religion is specifically protected in the Constitution [First amendment.] But in other countries, well, we’ll see. I say the outlook is that state will eat church, and I’m not 100% confident that it won’t in America.


            Cameron CANNOT protect Church against gay marriage laws (says his own Justice minister)

            PUBLISHED: 17:48 EST, 12 June 2012 | UPDATED: 08:36 EST, 13 June 2012

            David Cameron’s promise to protect churches from gay marriage laws could hit legal hurdles, a justice minister admitted yesterday.

            Crispin Blunt said it would be hard to guarantee that clergy would not face court challenges if they refused to preside over same-sex unions.

            ‘We’re seeking to protect, indeed, proscribe religious organisations from offering gay marriage,’ said Mr Blunt, who announced two years ago that he is gay.

          • Fnord says:

            It’s true, Mr. Van Dyke, that we don’t make Quackers kill. But we have, at various times, required them to cooperate with the war effort in support of those who do, or, indeed, to provide payment to recruit a replacement.

          • James Hanley says:

            TVD is right, though, that there is an important distinction between giving legal recognition to acts a religious body undertakes of their own accord and legally requiring them to undertake an act they would not do of their own accord. That doesn’t resolve the policy issues by itself, but overlooking that distinction muddies, rather than clarifies the issues (or so it seems to me).

            To highlight the difference, using a non-religious analogy, it’s great that the government legally recognizes my ownership of my home, but it would be less great if it required everyone to purchase a home.

          • Fnord says:

            That’s true, Mr. Hanley, but that particular sin is being committed by Mr. Van Dyke as well. Mr. Van Dyke fears that the State will swallow the Church in England. But read the article Mr. Van Dyke links to; the whole thing, not just the inflammatory headline.

            The so-called problem the Church of England fears IS a loss of recognition, not compulsion.

            “[The Bishops’] legal advice says that if [the Church of England] conducts weddings as a private organization rather than an organ of the state, it may be allowed to continue its current practice.”

            “One possibility is that church weddings in the future will have the same lack of legal status as weddings conducted by minority faiths.”

            The Church doesn’t fear oppressive compulsion. It fears the loss of special deference, of the unique recognition as the established church.

            “The Church of England has already said…that the 500-year-old ties between the Anglicans and the state are under threat.”

            The problem here is not caused by insufficient deference to religion by the state, but excessive deference.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            “Excessive deference?” Interesting concept, since that deference is written into the First Amendment. [Crossing the line of deference of course becomes “establishment” of religion, which is also banned.]

            As for the official establishment of the C of E [the Church of Norway just disestablished this year, and indeed a looming problem was gay marriage], it is a problem we don’t necessarily have to worry about precisely because of the First Amendment. However, countries without a First give religion far less deference, and I suspect in the coming century, will give even less.

            Ironically for Christians, the front line for religious freedom may become Islam, which enjoys a cache with the politically correct that Christianity doesn’t. OTOH, I see Switzerland has banned minarets—putting religious freedom up to a popular vote, presumably unthinkable in the First Amendment USA.

            BTW, this one will be interesting


          • Fnord says:

            Since I was talking about a case where the problem was the literal establishment of a religion (the article, of course, being about England), I hardly think it was odd at all.

            You’re right, of course, that religions with established power bases tend to do better than those without, though I’m not sure I’d put the same religions in each category as you do. The example that springs to my mind is more along the lines of Employment Division v. Smith.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            > TVD is right, though, that there is an important
            > distinction between giving legal recognition to
            > acts a religious body undertakes of their own
            > accord and legally requiring them to undertake
            > an act they would not do of their own accord.

            Well, of course.

            But we can (and do) force churches to recognize secular marriage. The Roman Catholic church, for example, has to offer spousal benefits to people who are married in churches other than the RCC… as long as they’re married in the eyes of the State, no? Doesn’t the Archdiocese of Boston have to pay spousal benefits for gay married couples?

            Should they? Well, I would imagine that the RCC is (and should be) free to say that they will not offer spousal benefits to anyone who isn’t married in the RCC. That would be a pretty epic fight, legally, but I think it’s a legit one for the Church to win.

            And yet they don’t fight that fight, do they? So conceptually they don’t have an absolute principle against secular marriage -> they recognize them all the time. If the RCC in Massachusetts wanted to deny spousal benefits just to same-sex couples on religious freedom grounds, they’d have to put all their chips in the pot and oppose giving spousal benefits to *all* secular non-RCC marriages on religious grounds.

            This is different from forcing them to *sanction* any particular secular marriage, or *perform* any particular secular marriage as a religious one.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            That’s a good one, Pat. I wouldn’t expect them to win that one in Massachusetts. Have they fought it? When Massachusetts demanded the RCC give babies to be adopted by gay couples, the Church just bailed on the adoption business rather than fight. Leviathan 1 Church 0.

          • GordonHide says:

            @Tom Van Dyke

            “We don’t make Quakers kill, never have. It’s a long-standing understanding of religious conscience.”

            No and the US is not proposing to make Catholics use contraceptives. The US does, however, oblige Quakers to pay part of the costs so that others can kill just as they are now going to make Catholic organisations pay for contraceptives that others will use.

            At least the Quakers are unanimous in there opposition to killing which you could hardly say about Catholics and contraception. Most Catholics have already spoken with their feet on this issue. (But perhaps I mean some other bodily part).

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            That doesn’t work, Mr. Hide. If the gov’t wants to hand out contraceptives [actually it does, via PP, etc.], if it all comes from the general fund, we don’t split hairs that way.

          • GordonHide says:

            @Tom Van Dyke

            “That doesn’t work, Mr. Hide. If the gov’t wants to hand out contraceptives [actually it does, via PP, etc.], if it all comes from the general fund, we don’t split hairs that way.”

            It seems to me that splitting hairs is exactly what you’re about.

            a)Religious freedoms and privileges should be for citizens not organisations.

            b)The Catholic church receives its money from people who, in the main, already use contraceptives.

            c)The officers of the Catholic Church who actually pay the premiums are not using their own money or money they have received from those who mainly oppose contraception. If they are being coerced to act against their conscience they need to start thinking logically.

            d)That you believe the moral position of Catholic officials who use others’ money to pay insurance premiums that include contraceptive cover is significantly different from Quakers who have to use their own money to pay taxes for defence expenditure just because such taxation is not hypothecated shows that you need to think more logically also. There is no part of a health insurance premium ring fenced for contraceptive cover and in fact strict Catholics will not use the cover.

      • Patrick Cahalan says:

        In addition, Tom…

        If two parties cannot agree that something is self-evident, it can’t be self-evident, pretty much by definition. If the self-evidentness of something requires revealed truth, it’s not self-evident, it’s revealed truth.

        I’m pretty square with the idea that if an Almighty exists, said Almighty cannot be both moral and duplicitous. So if the Almighty wants us non-Almighty types to have any shot at divining anything, the rules of the game have to be derivable without relying upon Oracles, if they’re at all meaningful. We have to be able to come to an approximation of the truth of the matter using our messed up poor little brains, or else there is some severe perversity going on.

        Else there’s no real moral value to anything beyond, “Shut up and follow the rules”. Maybe that can be an idea of a deity, but it falls outside of my conceptual framework.

        So, if you and I can sit down and agree on some finite set of moral assertions, and by following the rules of logic come up with a moral philosophy that is not inconsistent, we’re probably coming pretty close to the Truth. Close enough for mortal work, anyway.

        All this talk of “grounding them in their origin” leads me to a place where there is a conflict that isn’t resolvable via discourse. Irreconcilable differences. And a desire, should an irreconcilable difference arise, to claim victory by fiat.

        I believe X. You believe Y. We can posit all sorts of additional A…Ws wherein we can both agree that A…W is fine and dandy, and they’re all consistent with both X and Y. But we can’t get past the point where I believe X and you believe Y.

        Now, there are two possibilities: one of us is correct, or we’re both wrong. In *either* case, we should be able to find out what the truth is by going past X and Y to Z. If we can agree on Z, and A…W + Z is still consistent with X and Y, we can go on to A’, and then B’… and eventually we’ll get to N”” or something where we have a principle where we have serious inconsistency with what has come before if we have Y being true, and consistency if X is true (or vice versa). At which point, we’ve both learned something and we’ve come closer to the Will.

        Just saying, “X is true because it is self-evident” doesn’t get us anywhere, except it gets one of us the self-righteous card. I try not to play that card even when it is in my hand, so it doesn’t do me any good anyway.

        • Stillwater says:

          Whoa. That’s a pretty dern good comment Patrick. Like, really good.

          • James Hanley says:

            Yeah, I’m totally down with that first paragraph especially.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            The tricky part is that I imagine Tom and I are pretty square on A… W. If we have a disagreement on X vs. Y, I think we’re both pretty smart dudes and can find our N”’ if we work at it hard enough.

            The meta-discussion about whether or not we need a Deity to start the conversation seems to require us to agree that at some point we’ll say, “It’s ineffable”.

            I’m certainly willing to grant that we might not be able to find N”’ in the finite time that represents our lifetime, but that should be the journey, IMO.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            Oh, and thanks, Still.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          Sorry, Pat, too many disruptions to get to the larger whole. Some other time mebbe. The origin of rights can tell us something of their nature. In this case, the dignity of the human person underlies all.

          If we start with Z, we do not necessarily have X and Y in it, although it might appear so on the surface. As we move to A’ and B’, we have lost the thread, the essence of rights, not their enumerations. We have the “rule,” but we do not have its essence.

          Thx for replying.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            If we’re talking about achieving wisdom, Tom, I agree that the essence is kind of important.

            I’m still working on acquiring knowledge. I think focusing on the essence is trying too hard to skip the work and move straight to Enlightenment. I suspect that if wisdom can be acquired, it will come via hard work, not through revealed truth. Or rather, if God exists, God has seen fit to decide that I will be of the sort that requires the work, and if I’m gonna get the Spirit, it’s going to take effort on my part.

            Not sure how much. I think it might be a postmortem reward.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Essence da bomb, PatC. The rest is commentary.

            I don’t like Allan Bloom, but the one thing he got right was how analytic philosophy came to replace wisdom—indeed the eros, “the love of wisdom”.

            The difference between the erotic and the plastic is fishing obvious.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            Oh, I expect so.

            I just have to take the pedantic journey to get there, is all.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            PatC, I think it’s more growing up without classical philosophy. I notice it makes a lot of people angry. They prefer to work backwards from their worldview than start at the beginning—never realizing that their worldview was handed to them pre-packaged.

            And this isn’t to say that pietists and fideists aren’t exactly the same way, uncritically accepting their own received wisdom.

            A lot of the stuff I talk about is more from studying the Founding era—where the classical met the blank slate of the New World—than my later studies of Roman Catholicism [and I daresy I know much more about the former].

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            Oh, I read plenty of classical philosophy growing up. I still have a soft spot for Aquinas.

            Gödel made me start over.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Explains why you’re not angry. ;-D

      • Stillwater says:

        non-foundationalism ala Richard Rorty; We’re as a ship at sea,


        no idea how we got here,


        the vaguest idea where we’re going.


        Since we all agree we have ‘rights,” let’s skip their foundations.


        All rights become assertions.


        Further, by discarding their foundations, we lose any chance of grounding them in their origin, and in their nature.

        Yes! Absolutely! Because the origins make no sense!

        And so, what began as the UN Universal declaration of Rights via the Thomist Jacques Maritain becomes a rationalization of tyranny and murder.

  9. CK MacLeod says:

    Mr. Hanley @

    Atheism would be a claim not to believe in the being claimed to be like no other being, not a claim not to believe in any other being or any particular thing. Atheism as a claim not to believe in a particular being or thing like other beings or things, but taken as a claim not to believe in the being claimed to be like no other being, would be a misconstrual. Given the general character of particular statements of belief, all of which are misconstruals at least in part or open to misconstrual, atheism defined in relation to particular statements of belief is always a misconstrual of misconstruals.

    To construct an atheism that was anything other than a misconstrual you would need to be able to construct a system of belief without reference to a being like no other, a conceptual system without an absolute concept or concept of the absolute or “god concept.” One way of expressing the knowledge of the impossibility of the belief system without a god concept is to say “all thought begins in faith,” which has the same structure, faith in this case being the thought unlike other thought, unthought thought or pre-thought thought.

    • James Hanley says:

      And you don’t see any problems with that line of thought?

      To me, you seem to go wrong by pinning atheism down to a disbelief in “a being like no other.” That’s not really how atheists see it, I’m pretty sure. Certainly there could be multiple gods, with no “being like no other.” At least there are certainly polytheistic religious beliefs that run along those lines. And atheism would reject those as well, and not treat the mono-theistic(ish) belief in “a being like no other” as substantively different. That is, atheism is a disbelief in any kind of spiritual being, any immaterial agent.

      As to “the impossibility of the belief system without a god concept,” I don’t see an explanation why that would be impossible. Merely to utter the phrase “all thought begins in faith” says nothing about a god concept. All it necessarily means is that we have to make a leap into believing that we can know, without having a proof of that.

      Your argument seems to me to be heavily reliant on obscurantism, necessarily dependent on the assumption that phrases like “a misconstrual of misconstruals” really has a logical core, and isn’t just a mystical sounding phrase. That’s why I really shouldn’t delve into these discussions. That kind of style always sparks a suspicion in me that some failure of logic is being glossed over, a bit of sleight of hand to try to distract from the lack of connections, much like the writings of the lesser post-modernists.

      • GordonHide says:

        @James Hanley

        “That is, atheism is a disbelief in any kind of spiritual being, any immaterial agent.”

        I think this is more like materialism. I don’t think atheists who believe in ghosts or demons are excluded from atheism. The key, if rather banal, criteria seems to be any metaphysical being described as a god.

        • Chris says:

          I think most atheists, at least within the cultures of Abrahamic religions, can pretty accurately be described as not believing in a necessary, non-contingent being. That may not be precisely the way most atheists within those cultures describe what they don’t believe in, but that’s less of an issue of accuracy than of the possession of a precise vocabulary. In that sense, “misconstrual” seems to be a pretty minor issue. “Everything begins with faith” can, then, be seen as little more than a sort of philosophical agnosticism about foundationalism, or perhaps a slight lack of an appetite for speculative metaphysics.

          • Chris says:

            That was meant to be a reply to CK.

          • CK MacLeod says:

            Chris, misconstrual would be a primary issue if one presumes good faith among those of no faith, and yet one also presumes the necessity of faith.

            We can set aside for now why that faith must be a monotheistic faith (or why monotheism would be the truth of faith or the truth of or despite all other claims of faith, which is the base monotheistic claim). The claim against the atheist would be misrecognition or failed comprehension of the basis of his or her identity as an atheist, an identity based on a rejection of that which, the non-atheist must believe, the atheist merely claims to understand. The claim must be that what the atheist rejects is a false semblance, or misconstrual, of the truth or evidence of that truth; or even possibly that the rejection itself is false rejection, based on a misconstrual of rejection itself or of the rejectability of the rejected.

            When you define atheism-under-monotheism as “disbelief in a necessary, non-contingent being,” I interpret you as assuming a distinction between “a being” and Being. Under monotheism, especially under panentheistic, ideal, or mystical interpretations (which may also square more with certain non-verbalized experiences of belief and non-belief), that distinction is not necessary (though it may be contingent). This observation also applies to Mr. Calahan’s anthropomorphic depiction of a God capable of “duplicity” or “wants.” Such anthropomorphic depictions are, of course, common in the theological or pseudo-theological discourse of believers and non-believers alike, but are not the sum and substance of monotheistic belief, and to take them as such, or possibly as such, would be an example of a primary misconstrual typical of the self-styled non-believer who prefers to see the given text, discourse, dogma, picture, etc., as an adequate reduction of the faith for purposes of logical disproof – as though the bearded man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel must be “how they really see their God.”

          • Chris says:

            CK, what do you think I mean when I say a “necessary, non-contingent being?” I assume you’re familiar with the history of that conception of God within the western philosophical tradition. Also, what do you mean when you refer to a being separate from Being? Your language is, as I’m sure you know, opaque to begin with, but now you’re throwing around terms that are far from clear, given the range of their possible meanings within that philosophical tradition. I keep wanting to answer that, given the way a necessary, non-contingent being has traditionally been construed in the west, I’m treating that being in particular as identical with Being, not separate, for the purposes of this discussion, but then I realize I’m not sure you’re asking the question I think you’re asking.

            Also, the misconstrual of which you speak still strikes me as simply a limit in the knowledge of most atheists, which is to say that they are, for the most part, not philosophers doing sophisticated work in epistemology or metaphysics (or even familiar with such). I don’t find that this has any bearing on the possibility of “atheism” or the necessity of “faith” in general, but merely suggests that most people have other things to do.

          • BlaiseP says:

            I’m not sure we can put “Atheist” into a boxcar, the sort which might allow us to use an article in front of it, to say “the Atheist”, as if there were a one-size-fits-all description thereof. As with the faithful, atheism has taken many forms. The same is true by logical inversion for the “non-atheist.” Big problem here. We must be careful.

            Some atheists would more properly diagnose themselves as Hard Agnostics: as you properly point out, it’s not so much a matter of belief in God, quoting Jefferson But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.. Such an atheist, and I’ve met more than a few of them, do not suffer from a lack of faith in their fellow men. Their “lack of faith” is merely a lack of Faith in God.

            But other atheists, cases in point, the Leninists and Maoists, actively made war on religion. Their view of Faith in God led them to view it as pernicious. Such was Christopher Hitchens. While Hitch might not have advocated for the wholesale destruction of the Buddhist cultural patrimony of China, his advocacy for atheism led him to reach many intemperate conclusions about those who did not share his viewpoint.

            Faith is what we make of it. It’s more than simple Understanding. Philippians: And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.. Many things in life pass all understanding. Most of the truly wonderful things in life don’t pass intellectual muster.

            But on the flip side, when the archaeologists confront some Unknown Thingummy, they usually default to “oh, it must be related to their belief system.” If the religious make a dog’s dinner of trying to explain their faith and is tasked with explaining away the manifest evils done in the name of religion, the atheist hasn’t done such a fine job of explaining away what was done in the name of his non-belief. Hence my statements about liberating both Faith and Atheism from the boxcars to which we’ve confined them, as if either label did anything but divide us.

        • James Hanley says:


          Good point. That’s logically true. I was just trying to point out that a god doesn’t have to be a being unlike any other. The Mormon faith, for example, treats the term that way.

      • CK MacLeod says:

        Your argument seems to me to be heavily reliant on obscurantism, necessarily dependent on the assumption that phrases like “a misconstrual of misconstruals” really has a logical core, and isn’t just a mystical sounding phrase. That’s why I really shouldn’t delve into these discussions. That kind of style always sparks a suspicion in me that some failure of logic is being glossed over, a bit of sleight of hand to try to distract from the lack of connections, much like the writings of the lesser post-modernists.

        I’m not sure what purpose such meta-commentary is supposed to serve unless it’s an invitation for me to take offense, and to consider you not seriously interested in continuing the conversation.

        • James Hanley says:

          CK, I’m inviting you to clarify. While not everything can be explained very simply, it’s often the case that the better a person understands a subject the more simply they can explain it. Overly convoluted language does not serve the purpose of clarity, but it can serve the purpose of obscurantism. Note “can,” not “does.” I don’t claim that you are doing that; I claim only that un-clear writing sparks that suspicion in me.

          It’s possible, of course, that I’m just not philosophically inclined enough to successfully think in terms of this linguistic approach.

    • Stillwater says:

      without an absolute concept or concept of the absolute or “god concept.”

      This seems so confused that I think I must be misunderstanding it. Are you saying that any and all absolute concepts imply the God concept? So if I say it’s impossible for A /= A, it follows I’m to God?

      That strike me as a confusion.

      • CK MacLeod says:

        I don’t understand what “I’m to God” means at the end of the sentence about A/=A.

        The notion of the absolute concept implies “a” god concept. Whether or not you use the word “God,” either the English word or any of the names of God, does not strike me as essential to a preliminary understanding, but a concept of the absolute would by definition comprehend all of its own determinate forms.

        • Stillwater says:

          Yeah, sorry about that – sloppy writing. It should have said “… it follows I’m committedto God”. The question had a couple of aspects to it. One is to what extent you think my language-use commits me to specific metaphysical beliefs. For example, it seems to me that you’re suggesting that by using absolute terms, and absolute language (“impossible”, “never”, “always”, maybe even “necessary”, etc), I in effect commit myself to the existence of an absolute being. This strikes me as wrong-headed, and in the following way: a particular use of language might commit a speaker to accepting the truth of other sentences (eg. if a person says “John is a bachelor”, that person is also committed to the sentence “John is unmarried”), but that speech act doesn’t necessarily commit them to any particular metaphysics. One reason, the primary reason I think, is that we can’t read our metaphysics off of language use. I think that’s a mistake. A pretty big one, actually. And it seems especially wrong within the framework of a coherence theory of truth.

          • CK MacLeod says:

            Why am I to be taken as necessarily relying on a “coherence theory of truth,” and why would or should we find such reliance compulsory?

            As for language-use and commitment, that seems to be have to do with a volitional definition and constitution of the human subject, the notion that if I say or think “I believe in God,” then that means I “really” believe in God. On the level of ontology or onto-theology or philosophical anthropology, we have to consider whether and if so to what extent the human subject may be conceived of as constituted prior to or beyond any willed or stated commitment. I may be, for example, in an important sense constituted a Christian prior to my avowal of Christianity or atheism. I may be wrong about what I am, like a little boy who refuses to acknowledge he’s that thing called a “human being,” and bursts into tears denying that he is.

            When I refer to an absolute concept (concept of the absolute, god concept), I’m referring to a philosophical absolute, an absolutized absolute, absolute especially in the sense of “complete,” not a merely grammatical or syntactical absolute as in the examples you give. To enter into an investigation of the absolute is implicitly to investigate the self or what is meant by self and likewise speech, truth, meaning, and investigation itself. It may therefore take on the character of an interminable self-reflexive deconstruction of terms, determinations, terminology, etc. One thing that always prevents it from becoming truly interminable is time – the term afforded to the investigation of terms – including the time I’m running out of right now.

          • Chris says:

            I believe he means something like a transcendental signified, which, if you’re familiar with the term, might shed some light on what he’s saying.

          • Stillwater says:

            CK, I thought you once said you were a coherence theorist. Sorry if that was wrong, but it’s really neither here nor there to the point I was making.

            As for language-use and commitment, that seems to be have to do with a volitional definition and constitution of the human subject, the notion that if I say or think “I believe in God,” then that means I “really” believe in God. On the level of ontology or onto-theology or philosophical anthropology, we have to consider whether and if so to what extent the human subject may be conceived of as constituted prior to or beyond any willed or stated commitment.

            Dude! This makes no sense to me! On the one hand, you seem to be agreeing that specific metaphysical commitments can be read off of surface language; and on the other you seem to be saying that this is so because our “ontological constitution” exists conceptually prior to, and independently of, how we define linguistically define ourselves. (Or something.)

            But if I’m understanding it correctly, that misses the point I was making: uttering a sentence even as “I believe in God” doesn’t commit me to anything in particular, except a place holder, or a referent, or a “semantic value”, of the proper noun. What the place holder is – what the name refers to – requires additional argument/explanation. Which is to say, metaphysics cannot be read of off surface language.

            But I think you know that, so I must be misunderstanding the point.

            Chris, thanks for the insight. I think. 🙂

  10. CK MacLeod says:

    Chris @

    To keep things simple – that is, not presuming you’re of a mind to indulge in comment-thread Heideggery: “Being” refers to the all via the general category, the subject of ontology, how anything is. “A being” would be an entity. When you invoke “a necessary, non-contingent being,” or disbelief in same, you could be referring to either concept, with different and widely varying implications, although under some constructions the two concepts may re-join or re-configure or mutually determine each other, for instance among those who see the coherency, intelligibility, or meaningfulness of Being as in some way dependent on an idea of a divine being. Under some mystical or ideal conceptions the two become the same again, yet remain distinct as aspects of the all observed from different perspectives by mere entities as entities. So the All (or “Being”) and God the Angry Frustrated Father, merely a being (i.e., an anthropomorphized entity), might both be valid understandings even if at the same time they appear irresolveably contradictory, especially if you take the position that Allah cannot be said to be bound by or subservient to reason (of course he can make a rock that he can’t pick up, of course he can pick it up, etc.).*

    Atheism like any ideology has a double existence both as a philosophical position or orientation or ideal and as a more or less extensive history of what people have said and done in its name. To get at the former you often have to deal with the latter. If we agree that most atheism is on the level of untested opinion, then we are accepting that it is not different in this respect from other faiths – that it is, in this sense, in the minds of most “believing atheists,” another faith, though with the peculiar character of being the faith of anti-faith, or the untested belief that only that which is tested deserves to be believed. Whether this condition is merely the fate of people “who don’t have time to test their anti-faith” or is an essential characteristic of all atheism, all possible atheism, is the central and definitional question. In other words, it may always and forever necessarily turn out that no one will find sufficient time, inclination, or ability to complete the test, and that is why the atheist thought will also remain necessarily dependent on faith. Alternatively, it we could complete the test, the atheist thought might fail, in which case the atheist would be the one committed to the results of tests, refusing to accept the test.

    Either way, atheism would end up standing for an affectation, a set of historically or socio-politically determined preferences: Atheism would be, as Mr. Hide puts it, a banal (though sometimes intensely felt and expressed) disaffection for the word “god” (or variants, of course), for discourses and practices that refer to it, and for those who do not share that disaffection, but in every other way, with all their hearts, and all their minds, and all their souls, atheists would or could turn out to be simple believers in essentially the same things that theists believe in, believing them in much the same way that theists believe them. Not only could this be the case, but I think in our culture if very much is the case, in ways both banal and quite profound.

    *here is an example of such synthetic panentheism, to be taken as just that, not as a for all time adequate comprehensive reduction of monotheism – from the angel Raphael in Book 5 of Paradise Lost:

    O Adam, one Almightie is, from whom
    All things proceed, and up to him return, [ 470 ]
    If not deprav’d from good, created all
    Such to perfection, one first matter all,
    Indu’d with various forms, various degrees
    Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
    But more refin’d, more spiritous, and pure, [ 475 ]
    As neerer to him plac’t or neerer tending
    Each in thir several active Sphears assignd,
    Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
    Proportiond to each kind. So from the root
    Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves [ 480 ]
    More aerie, last the bright consummate floure
    Spirits odorous breathes: flours and thir fruit
    Mans nourishment, by gradual scale sublim’d
    To vital Spirits aspire, to animal,
    To intellectual, give both life and sense, [ 485 ]
    Fansie and understanding, whence the Soule
    Reason receives, and reason is her being,
    Discursive, or Intuitive; discourse
    Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours,
    Differing but in degree, of kind the same.

    • Chris says:

      I don’t mind getting Heideggery, and I suspected that’s where you were coming from, and I agree with much of what you say about atheism here (and elsewhere, if that’s what you were saying earlier — it was opaque, to me at least, until now). However, I’ll note again that, until Heidegger got all mystical with Being, for most of western thought, which is to say most of Christian thought (though also in much of Jewish and Islamic thought, particularly in the early and middle medieval period), a necessary, non-contingent being was Being. That is, what Being was, was to share in a contingent way in the being of that necessary, non-contingent being. So, even if they don’t think of it that way, most atheists in the west are not simply rejecting the word “god,” but are rejecting a conception of Being as identical with the necessary, non-contingent being. Atheists are Heraclitians to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Parmenideans.

      • CK MacLeod says:

        Will ponder that. I wonder if you had a particular text or set of texts/readings in mind that we could refer to.

        • Chris says:

          Well, I’m more modern than ancient, but it is Parmenides, and therefore to some extent Plato and Aristotle, plus the Thomists, Leibniz, Spinoza, and so on.

          I suppose it’s most explicit in Spinoza. What are beings for Spinoza? Manifestations of God.

      • CK MacLeod says:

        Clarification, recognition, changes in vocabulary, re-location and re-organization of meanings, and so on – all are authentic changes, but the ways in which they touch upon more fundamental transformations or re-configurations may be different from those intended or initially perceived.

        Not at all by chance, I believe that “rejecting a conception of Being as identical with the necessary, non-contingent being” will fall to the same or parallel self-subversion as the one that immediately presents itself with the self-evidence of non-self-evidence or the naturalness of non-naturalness. It is encountered under the historicization of historicism, or the discovery that the post-modern denial of any possible morality good for all times and places is inherently an (anti-)morality good for all times and places. It cropped up in my treatment of the question of atheism as faith. It’s a commonplace, because it’s inescapable and typical. To utilize the language just offered above: The perceived or asserted absence of the necessary, non-contingent being allows for and requires – makes necessary as non-contingent or transcendent – the auto-apotheosis of Humanity or Consciousness or Self-Consciousness, whose apprehension of Mere Being (the material world falling in a forest unknown) transforms it into or augments or realizes it as Being. Put simply, Humanity makes of itself the necessary, non-contingent being, under the new boss/same as the old boss paradigm.

        One key question may be whether (and if so how) there is any essential difference between auto-apotheosicizing Self-Consciousness and the idealized and de-mythologized God of panentheism. Critically helpful readings for me in this connection are Hermann Cohen in RELIGION OF REASON and Alexandre Kojeve in INTRODUCTION TO THE READING OF HEGEL – especially Chapter 5 of the English translation of the latter, “A Note on Eternity, Time, and the Concept,” which attempts to and may succeed in summarizing the entire history of theology or onto-theology, and arrives at an irrefutable proof of what he calls atheism and attributes to Hegel, but which Hegel himself considered ideal Christianity. When I say irrefutable proof, I mean that it is impossible to follow his logic and conclude that any theology – Platonic, Spinozan, Kantian, Thomist, etc. – can be sustained in a meaningful universe except as anthropology. Kojeve, lecturing in 1938-9, did not explicitly take notice of Cohen, who was writing in 1918 (I consider the dates quite telling), and who articulates a parallel synthesis, highly influential on Rosenszweig, Buber, Levinas, and others, but attributes it in an important sense to God the Eternal, the being like no other, by way of the Hebrew prophets. I also just noticed that the Introduction to Gillespie’s THE THEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF MODERNITY is available as a PDF at .

  11. CK MacLeod says:

    Atencion Sr. Cupp! Got a long comment stuck in moderation, possibly because it has two links.

  12. CK MacLeod says:

    Stillwater @

    Luckily enough for you, I don’t have time right now to reply in detail, but maybe this will help. You say, “Metaphysics cannot be read of off surface language.” (Assuming you meant “off of”:) To the contrary, I think a metaphysics will be implicit in any whole sentence: of a world in which subjects operate meaningfully on predicates. Further details will be made explicit – that’s what a speech act does – while others will be silently implied. Somewhat independently, any speech act, understood as a speech act in its actual context, will imply numerous assumptions – of a speaker, a listener or listeners, the purposes of speaking in whatever mode, etc. – that are normally utterly irrelevant to whatever is being discussed, but are the very stuff of a discussion of the production of meaning, the irreducible nature of the self, how Being is, etc.

    Hegel put an aspect of the phenomenon we’re discussing in a way that I, perhaps alone in all the universe, find quite amusing:

    We learn by experience that we meant something other than we meant to mean; and this correction of our meaning compels our knowledge to go back to the proposition, and understand it in some other way.

    • CK MacLeod says:

      Oh, and I never used the phrase “ontological constitution,” but it might be worth investigating!

    • Chris says:

      If I remember correctly, Hegel was speaking specifically of explicit philosophical writing when he said that (it’s been a while since I read the preface, but it’s easy enough to recognize). I don’t point this out to be pedantic but because, taken in context, that quote kind of undermines everything you wrote before it: it is not because the ordinary speech act contains an implicit metaphysics (and epistemology, and even a psychology), but because we improperly believe that philosophical speech is like ordinary speech, that we find we say things in philosophical speech that we hadn’t intended to say, because philosophical speech is deeper, not in the stoner sense of “deep, man,” but deeper in that the same sentence, in the same context, at one time means one thing, at another time something else entirely. The relationship between the elements of speech are simply different in philosophical discourse, for Hegel.

      I buy this to some extent, because philosophical discourse is more reflective than ordinary discourse, which tends to carry with it only a folk understanding, an unpacked (and perhaps, beyond the surface, largely empty) metaphysics, an unpacked theology, an unpacked epistemology and psychology and, at times, biology or physics, and it carries these with it even when spoken by philosophers who aren’t, at that moment, doing philosophy. On the other hand, the language itself, in a cultural context, contains an unpacked folk metaphysics and epistemology and so on that will inevitably carry over to philosophy, so that the only way to escape it is to speak entirely differently (which, of course, Hegel largely did), so in some ways philosophy begins at the end of ordinary speech.

      • CK MacLeod says:

        Chris, I think your second paragraph – which puts things very well in my opinion – contradicts your first in terms of what I was trying to say to Stillwater. In other words, I think it agrees with what I was trying to say.

        As you make clear, both philosophical speech and non- or pre- or un-philosophical speech will tend to carry all of that unintended freight. In philosophical speech through a careful definition and deployment of the most important terms, one tries to limit the freighting as much as possible in relationship to the development of the central discussion, so that it’s as much as possible kept well-labeled in its own designated freight cars not getting in the way of the conversation in the dining car – but it’s still along for the trip. The effort requires writers like Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida to write in ways that strike the average reader, especially the average reader who thinks everything worth saying ought to be perfectly and immediately understandable to average readers, as bizarre or impenetrable or even threatening. The average reader may correctly sense that many of the things that he considers unquestionable are being questioned, though he may not understand much else.

        So, Hegel may have been referring directly to philosophical writing, but what he says applies even more to ordinary, less well-controlled or considered expression, to the point that revealed or carefully considered intention obliterates pre-conceived or conscious intention: She meant to disagree with me, but everything she said and even more the way she said it supported my argument (even though she may have won the real argument). Even if one manages a very high level of control and clarity, saying exactly what one intends to say, even if one speaks what Strauss called “the perfect speech,” one’s saying is always going to be the saying of who – and whatever one is wherever one is, and is further going to carry forward certain presumptions about the point of whoever whenever saying whatever to whomever – the freight. Most of the time, in everyday imperfect speech and even in the more carefully considered writing of self-serious authors, what one can’t help but say is going to overwhelm and obliterate whatever one meant to say – it’s all freight, no dining – which would be why so much of what people say and write is not very interesting philosophically, even much of what is said or written with evident ambition to be taken seriously on philosophical questions.

        • CK MacLeod says:

          (got a little too happy with the freight metaphor, I think – could be we generally like freight in the sense of cargo, it’s why most trains these days go anywhere, but in the above it still stands for things unrelated to the main point, which’d be for us to get from A to B)

        • Chris says:

          Yeah, sorry, that was a poor transition. What I meant was that I agree with Hegel to an extent, but… and the rest was meant to agree with you where I don’t agree with Hegel.

          The biggest problem, I think, with the fact that philosophy does, in a way, have to begin where ordinary speech ends is that it makes it possible to disguise a lack of anything to say in a cloak of incredibly opaque language (I know I keep using that term to describe what you’re doing, but I do not have you in mind here). I think that’s the case with later Derrida, I think it’s the case with much of the Lacanian stream within Continental thought, and I think an absolutely perfect example that is even further disguised by how readable it is, comes with the recent Object-oriented nonsense that dominates certain parts of the Continental blogosphere. I’ve always liked Rorty for this reason: he saw philosophy as literature, which is in a sense what I mean by when I say that philosophy begins where ordinary language ends, but he also recognizes that literature, even in the form of philosophy, is meant to be read and comprehended. I may not always agree with Rorty, but I appreciate him for that.

          This gets us back, I think, to faith. Faith, I think, is a choice, and so the fact that most people, be they theists or atheists, don’t really choose the basics of their world view (to speak broadly), I think it’s a bit of a mistake to treat what they don’t explicitly ground as faith, because for the most part this stuff goes, as I said before, completely unpacked. There’s no choice, people just go on living, because that’s what we’re here to do.