Ask a Philosopher: Gnosticism

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Dr. Anderson, you mentioned examples of Gnosticism in popular culture.  Isn’t Gnosticism the teaching that there is secret knowledge?  How does that line up with the examples of dualism or hierarchies of spiritual beings you gave?

Reply: Gnosticism can be defined in three ways.  One is epistemological and that seems to be the one you are thinking of.  This teaches that the knowledge needed to actually understand reality is hard to get and only given to a few through secret teaching.  Knowledge is not clear and not available to all in general revelation.

Another is metaphysical.  So, for instance, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed) says Gnosticism is “a dualistic religious and philosophical movement in the early centuries of the Christian church. . . They taught that matter was evil, the result of cosmic disruption in which an evil archon (often associated with the god of the Old Testament, Yahweh) rebelled against the heavenly pleroma (the complete spiritual world).  In the process divine sparks were unleashed from the pleroma and lodged in material human bodies.  Jesus was a high-ranking archon (Logos) sent to restore those souls with divine sparks to the pleroma by imparting esoteric knowledge (gnosis) to them.”  It is worth noting that in this view God is the one who fell, and the other heavenly beings (demons?) did not.

So this gives standard dualistic framework: matter is evil and spirit is good; there is a hierarchy of spiritual beings some working for humans others against humans; salvation involves imparting secret knowledge to humans.  The God of the Old Testament is only one of many spiritual beings (and he is not the highest power), he rebelled and did wrong, he made the material world which is evil or imperfect, and one must be saved from this world.

The third way to define it is ethically.  Because of its epistemology and metaphysics it gives a way of life or view of what is good and how to achieve it.  This is some form of ascending the spiritual ladder to more pure spirit or a higher form.  This is connected to how it answers the problem of evil.  Matter is evil and spirit is good.  Sin is due to a good spirit being stuck in an evil body.  Salvation involves climbing to a higher spiritual realm.  Humans have contact with these lesser spiritual beings who can be guides and give direction but God is distant and unknowable.  One can see the Greek dualist influences here from both Plato and Aristotle.  It would be an informative exercise to look and see how influential this is in pop culture, and how often Christianity is presented as teaching something like this rather than the historic Christian faith.

For instance, the Cambridge Dictionary says “Gnosticism profoundly influenced the early church, causing it to define its scriptural canon and to develop a set of creeds.”  The Apostles’ Creed rejects the Gnostic view of Jesus.  The Christian canon includes the Old Testament and affirms a unity between the two testaments.  Genesis teaches that God made the world and it was very good (matter is not evil).  Salvation is not an imparting of secret knowledge, but a regeneration and restoration from the condition of not seeking, not understanding, and not doing what is right.

Defining Gnosticism in these three ways helps answer your question and also helps us identify its influence and distinguish it from Christianity.


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Upcoming Event

I’m very excited to be attending the Evangelical Philosophical Society next week in Denver.  I will be moderating a session with Daniel Bonevac (professor of philosophy, UT Austin).  We will be discussing the role of natural theology in knowing God.  If you are in the area be sure to stop by!

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Dialogue: Necessary Conditions for Thought and Discussion

I continue to update the discussion below.  The initial topic is whether we can use reason to know God.  One step in that is knowing that we, finite minds, are not God.  We can infer what would be true of us had we existed from eternity in order to conclude that we have not existed from eternity.  But most of the discussion is on whether or not we can use reason to understand what is real.  One way to say this is that reason is ontological: it applies to being as well as thought.  If we do not share this as common ground we will be hindered from analyzing the initial argument.

What are the necessary conditions for thought and discussion?  Are there laws of thought?  Is there common ground for discussion?  Many of you have been asking me about my discussion with Spencer Hawkins on how to approach an argument.  Below is the public dialogue I had in the comment section of this youtube video.  The video itself is about unity among Christians and the role of general revelation.

In this discussion you can see the progress from the subject “what is eternal,” to his claiming that ‘a’ is ‘a’ is fallible while still thinking he needs an answer that would assume the distinction between ‘a’ and ‘non-a.’  He raises many side questions to try to divert attention from the original question but these are listed so that they can be dealt with one at a time.  The original question is the standard one for philosophical skeptics: can we know anything outside of our epistemic horizon, or our experience?  He initially wants to ask this about eternal being but in order to understand how epistemic horizons work we must first ask in what way they apply to us.  Ultimately, the philosophical skeptic cannot even acknowledge that ‘a’ is ‘a’ is not fallible and yet attempts to affirm that there is an excuse for failing to know if anything is clear.  Without ‘a’ is ‘a’ in place we cannot distinguish between self and non-self, God and non-God, eternal and non-eternal, being and non-being, and so are unable to answer why an eternal mind would have infinite knowledge.  There is no “reason” to continue; in fact, we have an rational obligation to avoid foolish arguments.

Spencer Hawkins

1:08:35 Gangadean’s argument that the human soul is not eternal is unsound: (1) I have one thought after another. (2) If (1) and my soul were eternal, then I would be eternal in time. (3) If I were eternal in time, then I would be all knowing. (4) I am not all knowing. (5) So, I am not eternal in time. I think (3) is wrong: it’s possible for a thinking soul to exist for an eternity and never possess all knowledge. For instance, if a person didn’t care about a particular subject, they would ignore or never seek out certain facts. So they could exist for an eternity and only know a finite number true propositions. Or an eternal person could lose knowledge as they gain it — they could forget or remember incorrectly. Since knowledge entails belief, if a person loses a belief they once had, then they no longer have it as a bit of knowledge. All of this seem possible, so (3) is not certain; thus, Gangadean’s conclusion that the soul is not eternal is not “clear to reason”. It seems to me the only way (3) is true is if we assume two things: a) that the soul’s memory is infallible, and b) that the eternal person is motivated to seek out true propositions in absolutely every domain (even the most boring and irrelevant). But, of course, neither are entailed by simply “existing eternally”. Gangadean seems to be merely smuggling those assumptions in without justification.

Owen Anderson

I wonder if anything at all is entailed by “eternally existing’? For instance, is what is eternal also the highest power?

Spencer Hawkins

(1), (2), (3) and (4) pretty clearly refer to the person reading or thinking about the premises. So what is implied is not a person with an infallible memory or one who is motivated to seek all true propositions in absolutely every domain of inquiry. Also, Gangadean seems to be unjustly assuming that no facts exist beyond his epistemic horizon. If his soul were eternal in time, it could still be the case that a set of undiscoverable facts exist, given his epistemic limitations. Donald Rumsfeld famously called such facts “unknown unknowns”. Ironically, the only way Gangadean could know that no “unknown unknown” facts exist is if he was all knowing!

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins That raises a few different issues: 1. Can we know anything outside of our experience? 2. What is implied by the “I” in the premises and then my initial question: 3. Can anything be entailed from “eternal.” Can we know that “a” is “a” beyond our experience?

Spencer Hawkins

​@Owen Anderson the question isn’t so much whether we can know “anything” outside of our experience, it’s whether we would, if we had no temporal beginning or end, know everything. Given our human epistemic limitations, flawed memory, and erratic motivation to seek absolutely every domain of fact, it seems to me (3) is false. It seems that human persons is implied by the “I” in the premises. (4) — “I am not all knowing” — is about the reader of the argument. Gangadean (or anyone who agrees with the argument) has the burden to show why (3) is true. Are you suggesting that from the concept of “eternal being” we can logically deduce “all knowing”? Can you prove it?

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins We could add those as more issues, like:

4. Does memory lapse affect my ability to know if I am eternal?

5. Do I need to know everything before I can know anything?

But before we could know if we can identify the temporal, changeable “I” with what is “eternal” and assess this argument, we would have to address your claim about knowing what is outside of our experience. If we can’t know that “a” is “a” outside of our experience, then we won’t make progress in assessing the argument for soundness. Can we know that “a” is “a” outside of our experience?

Spencer Hawkins

​@Owen Anderson you’re brining up questions that shift away from (3). We’re not asking whether memory lapse affects one’s ability to know if they are eternal, we’re asking a broader question, whether memory lapse affects one’s ability to know everything.

Here are the objections I originally had suggested:

a. Human beings lack an interest or motivation to seek true propositions in absolutely every domain. (For the sake of argument let’s drop the worry about epistemic horizons and assume that we don’t have epistemic limitations and can know things beyond our experience — the objection still holds.) So, even if you or I existed eternally in time, we could still lack some knowledge; thus, (3) is false.

b. Human beings don’t have infallible memory, so even if you or I existed eternally in time, we would never reach a point of possessing all knowledge. Thus, (3) is false.

If you affirm Gangadean’s argument and think (3) is true, what’s your justification? Do you have a deductive proof that “eternal being” logically entails “is all knowing”?

Owen Anderson

​@Spencer Hawkins Far from shifting away, I’m listing your questions so we can make sure we address each of them. Yes premise 3 is true and the argument is sound. We are working through questions you have about that starting with #1 above in the list. You aren’t sure if you can know anything outside of your epistemic horizons. So I’ve asked you if you can know that “a” is “a” outside of your experience? I’ve noted your broader question, but we can’t assess the soundness of the argument together if you don’t know that “a” is “a” outside of your experience.

Premise 3 is true if the finite and temporal self (the reader or audience, as you say) cannot also be eternal being. If the finite self has other limitations, like not seeking or incorrigible memory lapse, this only strengthens the premise. The structure of the argument is that “a” is “a”, and “a” is not “non-a.” Thus, the importance of “a” is “a.”

It is good that you focused in on this premise in a talk to Christians about the unity of the faith. This premise is about whether or not we can know that we are not God. Christians agree, are united, that the self is not God. It is affirming that, given the nature of God and the nature of the self, we can indeed know that the self is not God. To say that we cannot know if “a” is “a” outside of our experience is no excuse for failing to know God, and the difference between God and the self.

Spencer Hawkins

​@Owen Anderson You’ve merely asserted that (3) is true and the argument is sound. All you’ve done is respond with questions back at me, instead of actually defending the truth of (3). In fact, it seems you’ve shifted to a different argument, summarized as something like the following:

(i) Only God (and being infinite in power, knowledge, and goodness) is eternal.

(ii) I am not God.

(iii) Therefore, I am not eternal.

The question now seems to be, what is your proof for (i)? Can you show that the opposite of (i) is logically impossible? That is, how is it a logical contradiction to say that the eternal being only knows a finite number of true propositions, or that the eternal being’s power is limited in certain ways, or that the eternal being’s goodness is limited, perhaps by bouts of malevolence, say, when angels have sex with humans (Genesis 6:1-4)? Or simply, that “atheism is true”? How are any of those conceivable states of affairs like a “married bachelor”? If you can’t establish the logical impossibility of the opposite of (i), then it seems (i) and (iii) are not “clear to reason” according to your own standard.

Remember, I’m interested in hearing your deductive proof (or as Kelly calls it, “strong justification”) for (3), “If I were eternal in time, then I would be all knowing”, or (i), “Only God (and being infinite in power, knowledge, and goodness) is eternal” and (ii) “I am not God.” The burden of proof is on you.

You said, “[(3)] is true if the finite and temporal self (the reader or audience, as you say) cannot also be eternal being.” All this says is that if Gangadean’s conclusion is true (“I am not eternal in time”), then (3) is true. But that’s question begging and does not strongly justify Gangadean’s conclusion. You must first demonstrate the truth of (3) to show that the conclusion of the argument follows by logical necessity. The same is true with (i) and (ii) as stated above: you cannot merely assume that “the finite and temporal self cannot also be eternal being” to prove that “I am not eternal.”

It seems all of your work is still ahead of you.

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins I’m neither shifting away from your questions nor begging the question. I’m taking the time to list your questions and I’m affirming that I do think the argument is sound to clarify my own position.

You keep adding new questions that we can add to the list:

6. Can the perfect being be imperfect?

7. Does God show malice in Genesis?

8. In Genesis 6 did angels have sex with humans?

9. What would a mind know after having existed from eternity?

10. Can we cross an infinite past to get to the present?

I’m still focusing on your first question about epistemic horizons. That’s the opposite of shifting questions. Let’s stay on that one, don’t shift away or add more. If you aren’t able to know anything outside of your experience then you can’t know if “a” is “a”, or if “eternal” is “eternal,” and we can’t evaluate the argument.

Its good to bring up the married bachelors as an example because I think it is similar to what we are facing here in our discussion. Someone could say “I can conceive of a married bachelor” So then we’d need to clarify what each word means. So once we’ve done that and say “bachelor means unmarried man” then “married unmarried man” is a contradiction someone could still say “but why is that a problem, maybe ‘a’ can be ‘non-a’,” or “who are you to say ‘a’ cannot be ‘non-a’?” Or they might ask “why does bachelor have to mean that?”, just like asking “why does eternal have to mean that?”

So we don’t make subjective “conceivability” the standard, and we clarify ahead of time if the persons in the discussion are committed to ‘a’ is ‘a.’ You’ve asked me many questions. I’ve only asked you that one question to help answer your own question about epistemic horizons. Are you going to answer?

Like clarifying “bachelor,” once we do this with “eternal” the contradiction is there, but it was there the whole time. If someone says “I don’t see how a married bachelor is a contradiction, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” or they say “I don’t see why eternal means not temporal, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” they haven’t understood the words being used.

Spencer Hawkins

@Owen Anderson I don’t see why you don’t just get straight to the point. If you had a proof for (3), why wouldn’t you just offer it? Same with (i) and (ii)? Or are you under the impression that philosophical proofs only come by way of Socratic dialogue? That is, are you of the belief that formal proofs aren’t meant to be shown by an individual with her pen and paper (or computer and keyboard), but through a back and forth discussion, where you help draw out the deductive implications of an interlocutor’s questions? Or moreover, do you think your interlocutor must “affirm” each and every step of the proof for you to reach your professed conclusion? If so, I simply disagree. If you have a deductive proof, you don’t need me or anyone else in the room for you to meet your burden of proof.

For instance, you could simply define your terms, state how you will evaluate the argument, state your premises, and prove them.

To answer your question, I do, in a sense, “affirm” or “know” that ‘a is a’ beyond my own experience, but not in the way that you’re assuming. I don’t claim to be deductively certain when I claim to “affirm” or “know” the meaning of terms, the consistency that the world takes, and so on. I think human knowledge is fallible and the quest for a foundationalist (internalist) basis in incorrigible or infallible certainty is a lost cause. But let’s not lose sight of Gangadean’s proof that you think is sound: the question with (3) isn’t if we can know (given your definition of knowledge) some things beyond our experience, but whether, if you or I were eternal in time, would we know everything there is to know? You affirm (3). Why?

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins I don’t think we need to engage in dialogue in all cases, and there are times when we can simply state an argument.  Nor have I missed your point about whether epistemic horizons apply to an eternal being. To address that question we need to first back up and figure out what are epistemic horizons and this includes finding out how they affect us. You were concerned in your first post about whether assumptions had been smuggled in, so we need to see if you are doing the same. Your assumptions have kept you from being able to assess what is going on in the argument and then in our discussion.

These specific questions (can an eternal mind forget, be subject to decay) are ones I also had and ones my students regularly ask me. I have no problem answering them. But if one of the persons involved isn’t sure that ‘a’ is ‘a,’ then they won’t be able to go to that next step. They wouldn’t be able to affirm if a word is a word, what they are thinking is what they are thinking, their question is a question, a mind is a mind, eternal is eternal, a reply is a reply, or an argument is an argument.

Additionally, you quoted from someone who regularly slanders me and others I know. This affects whether the question is one in good faith to pursue and answer together.

On your end, I can imagine it would be difficult to understand why someone would think that an eternal being would have infinite knowledge given your fallibilism and empiricism. Its like saying: “I can’t believe in God because all is fallible, perhaps God is not God, eternal is not eternal, true is not true.” That would be a very confusing condition. If you make progress in understanding why ‘a’ is ‘a’ get back in touch with me so that we can discuss why an eternal mind would have infinite knowledge. Until then there is no “reason” to continue the discussion.

I know that many others are reading this and have been in contact with me on email with questions. Thank you! This has been a useful discussion to highlight when questioning becomes incoherent. It has drawn lots of attention to the video and I’m thankful for that. I can use this dialogue as a resource for others to help to illustrate what happens to a discussion when someone demands an answer but cannot even affirm that an answer is an answer due to their prior commitment to fallibilism.  There are different levels of fallibilism with different applications and this seems to be one that affirms “all is fallible.”  I’ll post it at my blog here:

In terms of epistemological assumptions, this has been similar to how Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus in John 18. When he asks Jesus “what is truth?” the discussion ends. What kind of answer does he want? A true answer? He doesn’t know what that is and wouldn’t recognize it. You can imagine Pontius Pilate thinking “I really stumped Jesus, he couldn’t reply,” while also not even knowing what truth is!

Many have told me they are surprised to see that a skeptic will go so far as to think ‘a’ is ‘a’ is fallible. We can watch and see if a skeptic can also have integrity with that profession. What would it look like to be consistent with saying each word in my sentence or question does not mean what it means? If you would like to discuss this with me, or why an eternal mind would have infinite knowledge and not be subject to memory loss or decay, follow my blog as I will update it.

Spencer Hawkins

@Owen Anderson I’m happy to hear that you acknowledge your burden of proof given your claims, however we are still without a proof for the original argument. If objections about a temporal eternal soul having a memory lapse and incomplete knowledge are common from your students, and if you don’t have a problem answering, why not just give an answer? Instead, you seem to be trying to shift a burden onto me to avoid shouldering your own — you’re shifting the focus to assumptions that I may (or may not) be making, and claiming that those assumptions prevent me from being able to assess the argument and our discussion. That is, you’re asserting that your infallibalist, internalist, foundationalist view is a coherent epistemological view (and perhaps the only coherent epistemological view), and you’re demanding that I “affirm” whole parts of your philosophy, including your view of the level of epistemic justification that we have for the laws of thought and the consistency that the world takes at every level of reality, before you’re willing to shoulder your burden of proof. This seems not only fallacious but an attempt to rhetorically hijack the conversation to keep it under your complete philosophical control.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. For one thing, I’m able to entertain philosophical ideas. I can “stand in your shoes” and attempt to evaluate the argument from your philosophical perspective, presuppositions and all. I’m not dogmatically committed to my view such that I’m unable to evaluate another philosopher’s arguments. And even if I was a hopelessly lost intellectual, you could still simply demonstrate the logical impossibility of the opposite of (3) and (1). My feeling is that you don’t have a very good proof, so you’re stalling, or you’re going to have to shift to a different argument (and abandon Gangadean’s) in order to make sense of your claim, and you don’t want to do that publicly. But I’m all ears, prove me wrong.

Next, I’d hoped that you’d be more charitable to my view. First, I’m not a card-carrying empiricist. As I already said, I do, in a sense, “affirm” and “know” that ‘a is a’ beyond my own experience. E.g. I affirm that the sun remains the sun even after it has set. I just think self-evident truths like the law of identity are grounded (or justified) through something like intuition or common sense, which is something you’ve said is “insufficient” (CGE, p. xv). Or perhaps Kant was right that ‘a is a’ is a necessary precondition of intelligibility, so I have a sort of transcendental justification for the law of identity. How far that reaches into the depths of reality, I’m not logically certain (i.e. I can’t logically rule out how things exist at the quantum level, or if, say, the law of excluded middle is universally true, or if other systems of cognition beyond our kin don’t make use of the LEM. If you can, I’m all ears).

Second, you’ve made a mess of fallibilism. I think fallible is a predicate of people, not (always) propositions. So I’m prone to mistakes in judgement, I can believe false things, and I can think I have a justification when I don’t. But my acknowledgment that I could be wrong doesn’t imply or entail that I am wrong. You seem to be making this slide: if one “affirms” fallibalism in any way, then one can’t reliably recognize the difference between “word and non-word” or “argument and non-argument.” But that doesn’t follow. For one thing, there are many kinds of falliblism. You haven’t shown that I’m incapable of having a coherent conversation by being a fallibalist. In fact, your responses to my comments demonstrate that I am capable of carrying on a conversation! Also, fallibalism doesn’t entail complete skepticism (at least you haven’t shown anything like a good argument to that end). I think it’s a kind of black and white thinking on your part to assume that epistemology is either infallibalism of the internalist, foundationalist sort, or total skepticism. It’s unfortunate that this assumption is built into Gangadean’s entire philosophy.

You said, “you quoted from someone who regularly slanders me and others I know. This affects whether the question is one in good faith to pursue and answer together.” I only know the author of reasontodoubt dot blogspot as ‘J’, and nothing more. All I do is read his articles (which I’ve found to be very helpful), and I’m not aware of any slander against you or anyone else. All I’ve seen are pointed philosophical criticisms against Rational Presuppositionalism. I will point out, however, that my citing a source that you may not personally like doesn’t affect whether what he says is true or whether his criticisms of RP are accurate. I’m still interested in hearing your proof for (3) and (1), or (i) and (ii). Or ‘J’ suggests that you prove the following claim: “‘X is eternal’ entails ‘X is the highest power.'” All this go-around, and still no proof. As you said, we don’t need to engage in dialogue and there are times when we can simply state an argument.

@Owen Anderson you said, “skeptic will go so far as to think ‘a’ is ‘a’ is fallible. We can watch and see if a skeptic can also have integrity with that profession. What would it look like to be consistent with saying *each word in my sentence or question does not mean what it means*?” I’m not saying that, and I don’t believe that. Being a fallibilist about the justification for the universal (ontological) application of the laws of thought does not imply that I think each word in your question doesn’t mean what it means. You’re confusing belief that p with belief that ~p. That is, I believe ‘a is a’ is universal. But, I acknowledge that my justification or knowledge that ‘a is a’ given all levels of reality is outstripped by my ability to prove it given your standard of proof (i.e. epistemic, absolute certainty). And in saying so, you’re accusing me of believing that ‘a is ~a’, when I don’t believe that for a second. In other words, your standard of proof is too high. You’re feigning epistemic certainty for the laws of thought given all levels of reality when you haven’t shown it. And, while I make this pretty straight forward point, you’re accusing me of believing ‘a is ~a’ (and you’re filibustering to stall the convo based on this mistake). This seems to be the kind of sophistry that philosophers try to avoid.

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins I don’t agree with most of the claims you make in your post about what I supposedly think. You’d like people to be charitable about your views so do the same. I don’t think that doubting p means you believe not p. Or that only deductive proof is permissible. Or that people only use the word “knowledge” to mean certainty. Or that I’m affirming an “infallibilist internalist foundationalist” view here. Or that I’m requiring “high epistemic standards” here. Or that we must prove the laws of thought. Or that we can only dialogue if you agree with me about everything.

Much of these misrepresentations most likely trace to your original source that you quoted. Whether or not your source sometimes says something true isn’t the problem. It is his regular use of insults and misrepresentations that is the problem. You say philosophers want to avoid sophistry and that is right. They also want to avoid those types of behavior. You’ve linked yourself to him from the very beginning of this thread and so that does affect if your question is in good faith.

I’ve been focusing on your first concern in every one of my replies since then. What are our epistemic limits? How do we understand our own fallibility and limitations? This is far from stalling or failing to have a good proof. Nevertheless, making those kinds of assertions is precisely what is slowing this down and undermining your claim to just want to deal with the question. I don’t want to shift to other concerns if we haven’t addressed this first one. What I am asking is if we have the necessary conditions for thought and discourse in place to continue on together and assess this argument. If not, it wouldn’t make sense to go on and talk about other subjects.

Where we are at now in addressing that question of epistemic horizons is this: You seem to agree that reason is transcendental, but that you do not know if it is ontological (applies to being as well as thought), is that right? You say there is still no proof. I’m asking if the necessary conditions for proof are shared given your views on your epistemic horizons. See my above comments about your example of the married bachelors:

“Like clarifying “bachelor,” once we do this with “eternal” the contradiction is there, but it was there the whole time. If someone says “I don’t see how a married bachelor is a contradiction, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” or they say “I don’t see why eternal means not temporal, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” they haven’t understood the words being used.”

Spencer Hawkins

@Owen Anderson As I said, you’re shifting a burden onto me. I don’t need to affirm anything for you to meet your burden of proof. You can simply state your justification for (3) and (1). Or, if you want, you can include what you think are the necessary conditions for thought and conversation, why they are necessary, and show how you’re not violating them. Instead, you’re trying to wrangle me into either affirming your view of the necessity of the ontology of the laws of thought, or shut me out of the conversation as a person who “denies reason”. It feels like a cheap apologetic ploy, tbh. Remember, all I’m asking is that you justify your claim that (3) is true and that Gangadean’s argument at 1:08:35 is sound (as you claimed). If you want to debate metaphysics and epistemology, let’s meet up for coffee.

You say that you don’t want to shift to other concerns if we haven’t addressed the first one, but what you’re calling the “first concern” (the question of epistemic horizons) was my third concern. My first and second concerns to (3) were, first, if a soul like yours or mine were eternal in time, the possibility remains that we wouldn’t gain all knowledge because we lack the motivation or interest to learn about every possible domain of fact, and second, we have faulty memory. Both of these possibilities seem to undermine the third premise of Gangadean’s argument.

If I have misrepresented your view, I apologize. I get the impression that your view is “infallibilist internalist foundationalist” not from ‘J’, but from Kelly, Gangadean, and yourself. For one thing, you’ve made it clear on this thread that you don’t agree with epistemological falliblism. Moreover, the Public Philosophy podcast has several lectures that lay out the Gangadeanian philosophy. Kelly explains how “knowledge” of the Good, God, human nature, and the soul, are “understood” through pure reason, or by the impossibility of the contrary, which Kelly proposes is the highest epistemic category (as opposed to imagination and opinion). Isn’t this an infalliblist conception of justification (or “certifiability”)? Isn’t it also internalist with respect to justification? A proof by negation doesn’t seem to be justified by anything like the traditional externalist conditions. And I’ve always thought the Gangadeanian epistemology was foundationalist, built upon the “basic things that are clear to reason”. So, please forgive me, but I fail to see how your view is not “infallibilst internalist foundationalist”. I’m happy to be corrected.

Owen Anderson


@Spencer Hawkins I appreciate your last post, thank you. In my own case I’m ok with some formulations of externalism. And some forms of fallibilism seem to be restatements of the doctrine of total depravity and thus potentially have Calvinist origins! One of the things my first book was about is precisely this point of how the fall affects us in our pursuit of knowledge.

None of this is meant to be a “cheap apologetic ploy” to label you as someone who “denies reason.” It seems to be just the opposite given how you began the conversation quoting someone who regularly uses insults. The same points and questions can be made without sinking to that level. Using terms like cult, ilk, Gangadeaneans, lazy, sloppy, is public on that blog and something you can see for yourself. By associating with that and not asking him to make the same points without sinking so low you’ve shaped how your question is heard. It is too bad and maybe it can be reversed by you noting it as a problem now that it has been more specifically brought to your attention. But your affiliation with that behavior does shape how you and I interact until you distance yourself from it.

I agree with you that this is a limited format and I want to add that it tends to be unnecessarily combative. This is not my preference and I’d like us to shift away from that together.

By way of contrast to what you suggest, my goal here is simply to identify where we disagree in order to assess if progress can be made. Ultimately the disagreement isn’t about whether an eternal being could forget or be subject to decay. That was only the occasion for this to come to the surface. Closer to it is that we disagree on whether reason is ontological. And more precisely we most likely disagree about whether anything is clear. We don’t appear to agree if there is a clear distinction between God and the self. I’m not even sure if we agree on what it means for something to be “clear.” If we have made it more clear about where we disagree then this is progress! We can refer back to this in future interactions.


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Ask a Philosopher: Why Do Philosophers Disagree?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Philosophy presents itself as the way to seek the truth and love wisdom.  However, philosophers disagree with each other as much as anyone else, maybe more.  Why is this?  Isn’t this proof that philosophy is a failure?

Reply: It is true that there is not much agreement among people who study philosophy.  Stanley Fish, a professor of English and Philosophy, said that anyone who thinks studying these subjects will make you a better person hasn’t spent any time around English and Philosophy faculty.

On a superficial level it might seem that philosophers are basically the same and so should agree.  If all things are the same, beliefs should also be the same.  Let’s take that as true, and the reality of disagreement as a given, then it follows that since the beliefs are not the same all things are not the same.  Something is relevantly different that gives rise to disagreement.

I see this as an opportunity to apply rational presuppositionalism.  Critical thinking is a kind of buzz word in the academy that becomes empty of meaning.  But we can renew it by using it to mean identifying our assumptions, or presuppositions, and using reason to test them for meaning.  Thus: rational presuppositionalism.  The philosophers who disagree can be asked questions to identify where their disagreement began.  This is true for philosophers of the past, say Plato and Hegel, as well as for philosophers alive today.

Some examples of where these disagreements arise: in beliefs about what is good, what is real, and what is authoritative.  These can be called the areas of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology.  The more we are familiar with our own beliefs in these areas the more we will be able to identify them in the philosophers we are thinking about.  We can use it as a kind of exercise: pick a philosopher and identify the beliefs in each of these areas.  Then pick one that disagrees with this first philosophers and do the same.  Work back from less basic disagreements to the most basic disagreement between them.

Another way to start is from the other end: what does each philosopher believe is clear?  Does the philosopher start with intuition?  Experience?  A pursuit of happiness?  The forms?  Mathematics?  Or does the philosopher deny that anything is clear at all and embrace nihilism?

Finally, does the philosopher have integrity?  Does the philosopher live consistently with what is professed?  If the philosopher believes that all is matter or that knowledge is not possible, does the philosopher live consistently with this claim?  Or, if the philosopher claims that nothing is clear, does the philosopher live consistently with this claim?  If the philosopher claims to be committed to reason, is the philosopher able to show what is clear to reason?

The above gives three approaches for how to think about why philosophers disagree.  The order of basic questions, what is clear, and integrity.  If philosophy is the love of wisdom then we should expect philosophers, of all persons, to be able to show us what is wise by knowing what is basic.  The alternative to the love of wisdom and knowing what is clear is vanity and meaninglessness–a chasing after the wind.


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Ask a Philosopher: Humility

I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Dr Anderson, doesn’t humility require philosophical skepticism?  It seems prideful to say something is certain.

Reply: Of course, it depends on what one means by “certain” and “humble.”  There is psychological certainty and objective certainty.  Psychological certainty means that a person is absolutely sure of something but may not have sufficient proof.  Such instances are examples are failing to critically examine one’s assumptions, or failing to think presuppositionally.  Perhaps a lack of humility is a part of this but I focus on the neglect of the examined life as the problem.

On the other hand there is objective certainty.  Some things are certain and we should know these things.  To deny that anything is certain seems to be the instance of pride.  It is a refusal to assent to reason as the laws of thought and instead places one’s own subjective desires and inability to understand as the standard.  Humility puts the self under reason as the laws of thought, rather than in pride rejecting the laws of thought when we don’t like where they lead.  Humility also requires integrity which means we live consistently with what we claim to believe.  In the case of those who deny that anything is certain integrity requires living consistently with this claim.  This includes that we can’t even be certain we are thinking or saying anything.

It seems to be that the philosophical skeptic is fueled by instances of superficial psychological certainty and is right to call these out.  But by making this a matter of pride vs humility (as opposed to the use of reason to think critically) the philosophical skeptic might fall into this as well by overstating the case.  It becomes a matter of pride to refuse to acknowledge that some things are certain.  Perhaps this is because in acknowledging this we must acknowledge having come short in not seeing what is clear and our pride fights against this.  It is the humble, or the meek, who are willing to accept this and change their thinking.


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Discussion: God and nothing

I remember hearing an interview that ran along these lines.  One person had just written a book about how the universe can come from nothing (which turns out to mean quantum foam).  This highlights how we lose meaning when we affirm that being can come from non-being.  There remains no distinction between them.  Perhaps being is non-being.

The interviewer asked the following:

S: So you say that God does not exist?

L: Yes

S: And you say that the universe can come from nothing?

L: Yes

S: So if God does not exist, and the universe came from nothing, aren’t you saying the universe came from God?


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God and Truth VI Talk Overview

This is an outline of my talk from the God and Truth VI panel:

I would like to argue three things. First, a common false dichotomy; second, the meaning of meaning; third, meaning and reason.

First, the presentation of the question is a false dichotomy. It isn’t either the secular or the religious. This is similar to the supposed divide between faith and reason.  Or science and religion. These tend to mean revealed religion vs philosophical materialism. Revealed religion assumes God the Creator, it opens with this assertion, it does not prove it.  Philosophical materialism assumes that all is matter and that matter has always existed. One appeals to scripture and the other appeals to experience or empiricism.

Both revealed religion and philosophical materialism have assumptions that must be critically analyzed for meaning. This is the role of philosophy.  Sometimes when we are asking about the existence of God this is called natural theology, or the study of general revelation. Philosophy asks how do we know that all is matter and that matter is eternal?  And it asks ho do we know that God the Creator exists and that any given revelation is from God. We cannot simply table pound and say: I know matter exists because I see it, or I know the scriptures are from God because they say they are.

We often find these assumptions, or presuppositions, operating at an unconscious level meaning we are aware of our interpretations and conclusions but not the assumptions that form these.  It can take some time to get those into focus.

Working together on any project including the problem of meaning requires our having common ground. I’d like to propose that common ground requires:

  1.  A commitment to reason as the laws of thought
  2.  Integrity and a concern for consistency
  3.  Rational presuppositionalism and critical thinking
  4.  The principle of clarity (some things are clear vs nihilism)

We can go through these and consider what would happen to meaning and arguments if we denied any one of them. Can we avoid nihilism if we deny that anything is clear (if we say nothing is clear)?  What if we haven’t been committed to reason, are we willing to admit that? Or, are we willing to change our thinking and reconsider this?

If we do not have these as common ground then we devolve into foolish arguments. Indeed, if there is no common ground there are only foolish arguments. These are not good for the participants and they are not good for the listeners.  Wisdom requires avoiding foolish arguments

Second, there are different senses of meaning. Before we can settle on the meaning of life we need to know what we mean by meaning.  This is an example of the role of philosophy.

One of these has to do with purpose. To ask what is the meaning of something is like asking what is it’s purpose. And so if we ask what is the meaning of human life we are asking what is the purpose of human life. And this in turn asks what is a human.  How do we distinguish human from non-human. This is a use of reason.

This takes us to a second sense of meaning, which is cognitive meaning. We ask what is the meaning of a belief and we are asking for understanding. When something has no meaning in this sense it is meaningless, nonsense, and meaninglessness is unbearable. It not only has no purpose but it makes no sense.

A final sense of meaning: Meaning and hope. We die. Everyone dies. It all goes to nothing. It comes from nothing and goes to nothing. To have lasting hope we must be connected to what is lasting, to what is eternal. If being came from non-being then these aren’t essentially different. Consider implications if all is material. We can deduce theism from highest power.

The problem of meaning especially comes to us in our times of suffering.  Can we avoid nihilism if we deny that anything is clear? Does our suffering have any meaning?  Is it a call back to stop and think about our assumptions and what is clear? Or is life just one kind of suffering after another until death?  And is our hope to simply be freed from suffering (hope springs eternal in the human breast, man never is but always will be blest). So again we are presented with the question of whether we are willing to reconsider our thinking on this matter.

Third, this takes me to my third point. Meaning requires the use of reason. By reason we mean the laws of thought like identity and non-contradiction.  This is in contrast to reason as naturalistic thinking, giving reasons, rationalizations.

By reason we know the nature of a thing and the good is according to the nature of a thing. By reason we distinguish “a” from “non-a,” being from non-being, God from non-God, good from evil, meaning from non-meaning.  When we call something God that is not God we are speaking nonsense and have lost meaning. When we call something good that is evil we are speaking nonsense. When we say of human nature something that it is not we again are in meaninglessness.

Is it clear to reason that contradictions cannot both be true and cannot both be false?  If one is true, the other is false? Given that, let’s consider an example of knowing something that is clear is the distinction between something and nothing. No one confuses these. We might disagree about what something is, or disagree about whether something exists, but that disagreement is built upon our understanding of the difference between existing and not existing.

With that in mind we can see an example of what it means to say that something is clear to reason: being cannot come from non-being. Let’s take a moment to consider how this is clear to reason:  First, we can identify the two possibilities that are contradictions: either nothing is eternal or something is eternal. Next, let’s consider the claim that nothing is eternal. This is to say that being can come from being or from non-being; that on this point these two are not essentially different, it is to equate non-being and being. This loses meaning.  If the claim that nothing is eternal is meaningless, it cannot be true, then its contradiction must be true: something must be eternal.

Can non-being ever be?  If there are no rules governing non-being, could non-being also be being?  What is the difference?  If someone claims that God does not exist, and also that the universe came from nothing, is like saying that the universe came from God?  The purpose of these questions is to highlight the lose of meaning and intelligibility when the distinction between being and non-being is denied and it is said that being can come from non-being.

And so we get an example of our search for meaning and of how something can be known. It is clear that something has existed from eternity. To deny this one must deny reason and the distinction between being and non-being. It is an example of meaninglessness. Once one denies reason at this point it ripples through other areas like our beliefs about God, human nature, and the good. In saying that being can come from non-being we are putting non-being in the place as our God. What would that do to meaning in human life?  

Our meaning and our hope, that third sense of meaning, are related to how we connect with what is eternal, what is lasting.  And what we believe is eternal is one of the assumptions that philosophy must bring to the surface and critically examine. If nothingness is all we have to look forward to, we came from nothing and go to nothing, nihilism, then there can be no hope and no meaning.

To return to my three points as a conclusion.  The problem of meaning is a philosophical problem. The problem of meaning is a problem of the use of reason to understand human nature, God, and the good. Some things are clear about God. When we affirm these we can have a life full of meaning. When we deny these we empty life of meaning and increase forever in meaninglessness. Have we seen what is clear and are we ready to change our thinking?

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God and Truth VI

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Knowledge and Proof

Knowledge and Proof

I overheard this discussion today (only slightly fictionalized):

Tim: You can do what is right without being able to prove it is right, otherwise 98% of people would not be able to do what is right.

Soc:  Do you know you are doing what is right?

Tim: Maybe not, but that doesn’t matter.

Soc: Could you think you are doing what is right but be incorrect about that?

Tim:  Sure, that is common.

Soc:  So everyone agrees we should do what is right, and yet we often disagree about what is right.  How can we know?

Tim: Some things you just know.

Soc: But above you said you might think you know and be incorrect.

Tim:  The things you just know are produced by reliable mechanisms, either moral mechanisms or belief forming mechanisms.  These are reliable because they are aimed at what is right or true.

Soc:  How do you know they are reliable or aimed at what is right and true?

Tim:  They were made by God, or evolved (either way), to be such.

Soc:  Doesn’t that just push the problem up a level?  How do you know that your beliefs about God, or evolution, and properly functioning mechanisms are true?  At some point you will have to start giving proof.

Tim:  The fact that I need to give proof doesn’t change that what I did was right or what I believed was true.

Soc:  But that’s not really the issue is it?  The problem is what to do and what to believe.  Is what I think is right, or what I think is true, actually right or true?

Tim:  You’ll just know.


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Naturalism, or material monism (materialism), says that there exists only one kind of being, matter (broadly defined as extended and non-conscious and therefore includes some contemporary terms like energy and space). There are many justifications given for this belief, such as “that’s all I can see” (naïve realism), or “it is what everyone accepts” (common sense realism), for some there is a mystical connection with the physical universe (intuitive realism), it doesn’t multiply unnecessarily stories about gods and the supernatural (critical realism). Perhaps the most pernicious and harmful (to the reputation of science) is “this is the view that science has proven.” This is harmful to science because science does not prove basic beliefs, but instead deals with experience and appearances. All scientists may be able to agree on the measurement of experiences or data, but the difficult problem is in how to interpret this information.

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