Catching up with Philosophy

by Asher Kay

Here I was thinking that nothing exciting was happening in Philosophy of late.

I just found out (via Harman’s blog) that Quentin Meillassoux “believes in an inexistent God rather than not believing that God exists“.

Wham!

Go ahead and take a moment to replace the blackened and still-smoking fuses — in your mind.

What amazes me is that I never would have thought in a million years that I might share a viewpoint so counterintuitive – so deeply personal – with the Philosopher widely known as “The Herniated Uvula of Truth”. I mean, I don’t agree with him about the God thing, but there is no denying — while I abhor toasted cheese sandwiches, I am utterly in love with toasted sandwiches with cheese.

French toast? Same exact thing.

You might be wondering what in heaven’s name Meillassoux is on about with this inexistent God business. What he’s on about, friends, is atheism. Harman gives us the money quote:

Atheism is a strategy of the besieged. One begins by admitting that the territory of immanence is just as religion describes it, then one declares that this territory is the only one that exists, and finally one invents every possible way of rendering it livable despite that fact.

Exactly. It’s got to be either that or they don’t believe in God.

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17 Comments to “Catching up with Philosophy”

  1. So, uh, I have to admit that the whole thing sounds pretty dumb. Not a fan of either Harman or Meillassoux — I actually think both are prone to rather silly claims based upon rather basic mistakes (Meillassoux, for instance, never bothers to sort out the difference between possibility and contingency and then says really dumb things about contingency as if it meant possibility….)

    But, one might make the rather basic point that the difference between the two formulations has to do with whether you think ‘existence’ is a predicate, or a something quantified. Just look at the formalisms:

    I believe in an inexistent god = ∃!(x) [G(x) & ¬E(x)] (where ‘E’ is the predicate ‘existing)
    I do not believe that God exists ¬(∀(x) [G(x)]).

    In any case, If Meillassoux thinks that being is a predicate, then he might be able tomaintain a difference, but i see know reason why one would accept that — especially since it would mean that alot of our maths are wrong….

  2. You make an interesting point WC.

    The first asserts that there exists a unique x such that x is God and x is not ‘existent’. This raises the question of what correspondence exists between the existent predicate and the quantifier.

    The way I read it:

    Exists(x)
    ——–
    ∃(x)Exists(x)

    but the following is *Not* valid:

    ∃(x)A(x)
    ——–
    Exists(x)

    For any arbitrary predicate A. But one cannot quantify over predicates in FOL. You need a higher order logic for that.
    .

    Presumably there exists some predicate P such that the inference rule

    ∃(x) P(x)
    ———
    Exists(x)

    is justified (since there are existent objects satisfying the first inference rule).

    What is P? Is it Exists? This logic of existence, just may be a little tricky…

    —–

    You wrote ¬(∀(x) [God(x)]), but
    ¬(∀(x) [God(x)]) = ∃(x) ¬[God(x)]
    That says that you that there exists some x out there that is not G.

    I think you mean ¬(∃(x)[God(x)]).

    What is the appropriate domain of discourse for these quantified variables, I wonder?

  3. Yeah, I fudged the scope in my second formulation. I wanted something strong, like ∀(x)(¬[God(x)]), which is, of course, equivalent to your ¬(∃(x)[God(x)]). A silly mistake on my part — thanks for catching it.

    In any case, I suppose my intuition here is simply to say that the problem here is simply a use-mention one (akin to Frege’s conundrum about the concept of a horse not itself being a concept), and so can be treated as such. We don’t need rally need an inference rule for

    ∃(x) P(x)
    ———
    Exists(x)

    we simply need to eliminate the existential quantifier by offering an individual with the appropriate property P. Problem solved.

    Anyway, you’re point about the relationship between quantifier and existence predicate is precisely why I don’t think this argument gets off the ground, regardless of the limitation/expansion on what you can quantify over (understood either in some higher order logic capable of quantifying over predicates, or in a FOPCAL with a sufficiently broad domain). The higher order perspective simply leads to an unproductive regress, I think, while a sufficiently broad domain of discourse is going to generate Russell-style semantic paradoxes. So I guess my tentative answer to your final question is that there is no appropriate domain (no consistent one, so far as i can tell) in which one can treat existence as a predicate. One might be able to handle the problem modally, but that again transforms ‘existence’ into a mapping among models/worlds.

    I’m not an expert, though, and that last thought is just a guess. Maybe folks are doing some cutting edge research on this (i.e. the logic of existence), but I don’t see it really helps. So far as I can tell, we have good logical reasons for not treating ‘existence’ as a predicate. For Meillassoux, moreover, that should be decisive enough since mathematics (and hence logic) is the deciding feature in the reality of things anyway….

  4. I won’t claim any expertise either. Formal logic is a surprisingly large, diverse, and complicated field (try reading a foundational book on formal nonmonotonic logics, for example).

    This conversation brings to mind Jon Barwise’s situation theory, especially with regards to Barwise and John Etchemendy’s solution to the liars paradox, and its incorporation of Peter Aczel’s non-wellfounded set theory (which embraces infinite regress).

    More generally, I’m open to the possibility of there being legitimate notions of existence not captured by the usual quantifier in FOL.

    Moreover, the truth or falsity of some logical statements seem to depend on context in non-stable ways. Alone(Joe) might be true of Joe if the context of his apartment, but it is probably not be true if the context is taken to be the entire complex. In that case, you have two choices: 1. either reject Alone(x)’s semantic legitimacy and replace it with a two-place relation, or 2. accept it’s legitimacy within particular domains of discourse (situations). The problem with the first option is that it seems like any predicate that we use might depend on an innumerable many of unknown factors for its semantic legitimacy, and in any case, if we are translating natural language sentences to FOL, you’d have to fill in a lot of missing context that is basically left unsaid or otherwise left ambiguous. The problem with the second is its non-monotonicity when moving between situations. These issues become especially tricky when negation and quantification are combined.

    But now I’m going rather far afield from the topic of God’s existence!

  5. Non-monotonic logics are fascinating indeed, though I don’t think I’ve come across one that treats existence in a manner that’s distinct from quantification. I’d be interested to hear more.

    And — sorry Asher — the present conversation is way more interesting than discussions of God’s existence. A quick-thought about your example ‘Alone(Joe)’ example: you only have a problem here if you’re wedded to some form of semantic minimalism. If you’re a contextualist (and you are, since you’re interested in defeasible inferences), you can centre propositions in all kinds of ways that allow you to get around the problem — by distinguishing between contexts of use and assessment for instance….

    And I’ll definitely have to look up Aczel’s non-wellfounded set theory. I’m curious to see how that works. Thanks for the reference!

  6. And — sorry Asher — the present conversation is way more interesting than discussions of God’s existence

    No problem — you have enhanced the original post in a way I could scarcely have imagined. Classic.

    (Though I do hope you decide to turn away from Meillassoux and sic your symbolic representations on the much more vexing and critical problem of French Toast).

  7. Long time no see, Asher. As it happens, I was just reading Meillassoux’s “Spectral Dilemma” from Collapse IV:

    “But the divine inexistence also signifies the divine character of inexistence: in other words, the fact that what remains still in a virtual state harbors the possibility of a God still to come… To be atheist is not simply to maintain that God does not exist, but also that he could not exist; to be a believer is to have faith in the essential existence of God. We now see that the thesis of the divine inexistence must, to gain ground against such an alternative, shift the battle to the terrain of modalities: It is maintaining that God is possible — not in a subjective and synchronous sense (in the sense that I maintain that it is possible that God currently exists), but in an objective future sense (where I maintain that God could really come about in the future… From this point, God must be thought as the contingent, but eternally possible, effect of a Chaos unsubordinated to any law.”

    I regret to inform you that French toast does not figure in this particular essay.

  8. On a mild, but possibly interesting, tangent.

  9. I believe if we dipped God in egg and then pan-fried Him He’d be that much more likely to exist, or at least to not not exist.

  10. Add some cheese and you’ve got a croque mondieu.

  11. Throw some ham inside that, and you’ve got a Mondieu Cristo — triple the immanence!

  12. Also, it simultaneously solves the French Toast and Toasted Cheese problems!

    Put that in your eternally possible contingency and radicalize it, Quentin!

  13. Croque mondieu – I believe Nietzsche already made this point, but without drawing its full gastro-ontological consequences.

  14. Btw JohnM, the thing I like best from that good Edge of the West post you linked is the concept of ‘apatheism’.

  15. You say, “Here I was thinking that nothing exciting was happening in Philosophy of late.”

    So if I make a brazen pitch for “nothing” and causality, let me say that “nothing” is what is exciting in philosophy at the moment. Well, I make it so in connecting “nothing” with so much else in order to find out more about ‘what it’s all about’.

    “Nothing Matters – a book about nothing” (John Hunt Books, iff-Books)

  16. Brazen pitch successful! Sounds like a fascinating book, and right up my alley.

    I really enjoyed Deacon’s brief notes on the history of zero — since his argument revolves around the idea of absence, he uses zero’s place in mathematics as an analogy for how his ideas about teleology might fit into the physical sciences.

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