Sunday, December 17, 2006

Concept and Reality

Can God create a rock so big he cannot move it? The easy answer would be "yes he can, but if he is omnipotent, he evidently has not yet chosen to do so." But seriously, what if we find some inconsistency in our notion of God? Are we then obliged to conclude by the law of non-contradiction that God does not exist? I say no, if we are clever enough to distinguish between concept and reality.

Such an obligation would depend on a certain proposition, here stated in logicky terms:

For all real entities x, if our concept of x is not logically consistent, then x does not exist.

Important to my argument is the distinction between a real entity and our concept of it. These two things are what St. Anselm would have called "a thing in reality" and "a thing in the mind", respectively. Though in order to think about some object, say a rock, we must have some concept of what that rock is, the rock and our concept are distinct; one is "out there" and the other is in our brain. Of the two, only the thing in our brain can properly be said to be logically consistent or logically absurd. Only propositions can contradict and a rock is not a proposition.

With this understood, I can provide an easy couterexample to the above-mentioned rule: Let us pretend that we have two theories of physics known to us and call them Q and R. Let us pretend that each theory, on its own, is an amazingly accurate and poweful explanation of a great deal of physical phenomena, and the two together account for pretty much everything we know for sure about the physical world. Let us pretend that not a few successful technologies have been developed based on these theories. But then, let us further pretend that these two theories are logically inconsistent with each other, that is to say, if we combine the two, we end up with some contradictions. What then would we do? We might do like Hegelians and find in Q a thesis, then find in R its antithesis, then try to find their synthesis in some theory S. Failing that, we might just choose to live uncomfortably with Q and R's inconsistency; we might resign ourselves to the idea that physical objects are not perfectly comprehensible. But at no point would we doubt the existence of physical objects; we've run into them too many times in our own experience to do that.

Therefore, since we would not allow such a situation to disprove a known reality, we cannot honestly say we affirm the proposition stated above on pain of inconsistency. We could modify it to say:

For all real entities x, if we are not sure x exists and our concept of x is not logically consistent, then x does not exist.

But this modification is not reasonable. By the definition of "real entitiy", the existence of a real entity does not depend on our knowledge of its existence. Therefore, we cannot use this rule to disprove the existence of some external reality, even if we doubt that entity's existence.

Like any other external reality, so it is with God. When a traditional Christian says they believe in God, they mean that the object of their faith is an external reality and not a concept, though of necessity they must have some concept of what God is. If she runs into contradictions when contemplating God, she does not need to become an atheist. She might just choose to consider the highly probable possibility that her understanding of God is not perfect.


highlandhistory said...


Do you ever wonder how many people allow forms of philosophy to impeded their ability to accept the reality that not everything will make sense?

mackwai said...

I suppose I do. I have no clue what the proportion is, but I think a lot of people (including myself, sometimes) tend to want to think that everything can make sense, just because it makes for a more pleasant view of the universe. That and it requires less imagination.