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Disagreement Is Good

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Posted by Harvey on March 29, 2002 21:33:05 UTC

Hi Paul,

As I mentioned to Aurino I think we are beginning to beat a dead horse. However, since your comment was slightly different let me respond.

***Consider for a moment, the question of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" If we were going to seriously work on resolving this question, we would not quibble about, and demand definitions for, the words 'pin', 'head', 'dance', or 'how many'. The real problem with this question is "What in the heck is an Angel?"***

The context of the question is different since the example is much more specific. In that case, we need a definition since the common dictionary definitions would seem to be non-sensical if angels (as it is conceived by dictionaries and the general populace) could dance on the head of a pin.

***Some time ago, as you may remember, it occurred to me that it might be possible to distill the essence of the various God-concepts in a way that would meet with wide agreement. With my meager knowledge of the world's religious precepts, and with the knowledge of the opinions of several people on the Counterbalance Forum, I made such an attempt. I thought that everyone would agree that God was at least a transcendent sentience. Boy, was I wrong. If you remember, I challenged each participant of that forum at the time to tell me why that definition was not at least a necessary condition for their concept of God. With the possible exception of Aurino (I can't remember if he responded or not) I didn't get a single agreement.***

The same would occur if you asked for the definition of anything that asked for an ontological commitment in its meaning. For example, I protested Richard's use of general reference to probability because it was used as a justification for an ontological commitment. Philosophers cannot agree on a ontologically-laden definition of probability, and yet this is a concept right out of math! Whenever you focus on a definition (even those without ontological commitments) you are often going to get wide disagreements. Add ontological commitments and you have a stream of confusion.

This little fact shouldn't halt simple communication. Generally we use language to convey simple notions, and that is usually determined by context. As I said before, if we engage in semantics at every juncture where opinions differ widely as to meaning, then terms like 'probability' should be striken from language (i.e., as it applies to what things are probable in the world).

***If one is specific about how one defines God, then I think that it might help to define the rest of the terms in the original question. But I think that a meaningful job can be done by simply assuming the vernacular definitions of those other terms. Defining 'proof' might be more or less sticky depending on the person's view of God.***

In my reply to Mike I made more of a stink about 'proof' than God. With God I was under the impression that he had the general concept that most people have when they mention God (e.g., Webster's definition, etc). However, I wasn't so sure when he spoke of proof because often people think of something as proven if it is a scientific result, but he mentioned Gödel's proof which has a totally different meaning than the proof of science. So, I thought it was necessary to bring more attention to the selection of using this particular word in two different contexts within the same post. [Note: Had he done that with the term 'God' then I would have felt the more explicit need to define God with more exactness, but since he didn't do that I didn't want to overly complicate my reply and make it seem like you can't ask me a simple question and get a simple response - a very popular criticism which I think has ruined most people's impression of philosophy].

***For example, if some person's definition of God were some particular stone statue, then the method of proof that that particular stone statue exists might be different from that of a definition of God as an abstract principle.***

That's a great point if we are discussing a relatively deep philosophical point, but do a poll of most people and ask them if they think of God as a stone statue. I run across few people who even think twice about defining God. We're different here, but do we need to be that different? Simple questions deserve relatively simple answers if at all possible - that's my view (and watch me break it...).

***So I maintain that each separate attribute which may or may not be attributed to God will affect to some extent the arguments that might bring some light to bear on the question of existence.***

I fully agree, but if a simple question is asked and an extremely complex answer is given, then isn't that the way everything should be? Do we really think that anyone here is covering a topic in a manner which gives justice to that topic? There are volumes of books written by people who study nothing else but epistemology, or ontology, or philosophy of science. We are 'dabbling' in these subjects, but we aren't really exposing them in the manner that they deserve.

However, if we held that any view requires a full expose in order to be discussed, we couldn't talk about anything. None of us would learn anything. We want to go as far as we can in uncovering the intricacies of these various topics, but let's don't kid ourselves. None of us are experts on any of these topics. There has to be a balance. Even if we were to define God as best as we could, I have no doubt that each our definitions would be torn to shreds by those specialize in the philosophy of religion or metaphysics, etc.

So, it is all a matter of challenging ourselves but at the end of the day realizing what context all of this dialogue. Personally, I would rather not specialize but approach many topics since you carry the knowledge of one subject into another. The disadvantage is that we probably cannot 'define' God or anything for that matter in the manner that it deserves in an academic setting. [Nobody leave because of that! If you didn't know this to be the case then shame on you!].

Have a good Easter Paul.

Warm regards, Harv

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