Friday, April 24, 2015

Embodied Realism Part III: Is this realism?

Let us continue our survey of the philosophy of embodied realism as expounded in Philosophy of the Flesh (first two posts here and here). We now turn our attention to probably one of the biggest topics in philosophy, with which embodied realism actively comments on, namely that of metaphysical realism. Metaphysical realism is the position that an external reality exists apart from our consciousness, and that our apprehensions of this reality are determined mostly by the actual properties inherent in it. The opposite of realism is anti-realism, which states either that an external reality does not exist, or that we cannot know this reality in itself.

So, where does embodied realism stand in this dichotomy? Well, embodied realism is called realism, and thus it would seem to fit neatly in this category. And indeed this would be prima facie correct, since the authors explicitly state their belief that an external world exists. So then, are we finished here? Well, not exactly. For while the authors will admit the existence of an objective reality, they deny that there is any neutral vantage point from which we can know anything about this objective reality apart from our embodiment:

[C]lassical metaphysical realism cannot be right, since the properties of categories are mediated by the body rather than determined directly by a mind-independent reality. (p. 28)

[Embodied realism] gives up on being able to know things-in-themselves, but, through embodiment, explains how we can have knowledge that, although it is not absolute, is nonetheless sufficient to allow us to function and flourish. (p. 95)

[Embodied realism] denies that we can have objective and absolute knowledge of the world-in-itself…[E]mbodied realism denies on empirical grounds, that there exists one and only one correct description of the world[.] (p. 96)

We will deal with the inherent problems with these claims in just a moment. Primarily, we need to observe why they are being made. This is to ask why the authors are claiming that we cannot have objective knowledge of reality-in-itself, and why does our embodiment keep us from predicating properties of reality from a neutral vantage point? The main reason is due to the levels of embodiment (neural, phenomenological, and cognitive unconscious) that we surveyed in the first post of this series. Remember that embodied realism claims that, based on our embodiment, we don’t have a neutral vantage point to say “X is or isn’t the case,” because things are or are not “the case” (i.e. real or unreal) relative to our understanding at a certain level of embodiment. Therefore, we can only say “X is or isn’t the case, at a certain level of embodiment.” So, what we mean by something being “true” and “real”, on embodied realism, depends upon the perspective and level of embodiment being considered. To take the example the authors utilize—and which we saw was false in the first post—color isn’t “actually” real, if we are attempting to promulgate this statement from a neutral standpoint. Rather, color is “real” only when considered from the level of phenomenology, but is it “unreal” when considered from the neural level. That is, the existence of color is “real” only relative to the perspective, here the phenomenological level of embodiment, being considered.
Now, remember that in the aforementioned post we saw these arguments to be false. Not only can we make absolute predications of reality from a privileged perspective, but we must do so. In fact, the author’s own theses contradict their very claims. When they say, for instance, that we cannot know “things-in-themselves”, or that we cannot have objective and absolute knowledge of the world, the authors are predicating these propositions as objective predications of reality from their own privileged vantage point! That is, they’re saying that it is an objective fact that we cannot know things in themselves, and it is objectively true that we cannot have objective knowledge. This is, to say the least, self-refuting. For the embodied realist’s claim that reality cannot be known is not simply made at the neural level, or the phenomenological level, or the cognitive unconscious level. No, it’s made from a unique perspective that says “reality is this way, period,” even though this is what the embodied realist says cannot be done.

The embodied realist, thus, is blind to the absurd implications of their philosophy. If one level of embodiment cannot be privileged over and above another, then no single proposition can be seen as an adequate predication of reality in any domain whatsoever—since any single proposition can only represent one level of embodiment at a time. But if no single proposition can be an adequate predication of reality in any domain, then the embodied realist’s very claims about objectivity, knowledge, reality, and ontology cannot be adequate predications of reality either, and thus we should pay them no heed.

Furthermore, if we truly cannot know reality-in-itself, and can have no objective or absolute knowledge of this reality, then we cannot make those very same claims—i.e. that we cannot know reality-in-itself and that we cannot have objective knowledge of the world. That is to say, if we can’t know objective reality, then the statement “we can’t know objective reality” is also false, since it is predicated on a knowledge claim about the nature of reality. Everywhere we turn embodied realism shoots itself in the foot. This is why, as I said in the last post, embodied realism is junkyard of poor philosophy.
So, is embodied realism a misnomer? Should it even be labeled a form of realism? Not really. While it admits the existence of an external reality, it discards the proposition that we can have any real knowledge of the objective properties of this reality, and thus it belongs in the camp of anti-realism.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

God is not good

One issue that is constantly at the back of my mind is the so-called problem of evil. This problem is formulated in many (usually philosophical) ways—e.g. as Epicurus’ or Hume’s famous dilemma between forfeiting God’s goodness or his sovereignty in the light of evil. Yet, I think that when most people feel the weight of this dilemma, they feel it emotionally and not intellectually—at least that’s the case with me. When confronted with the callous reality of suffering in the world, the question immediately arises regarding how a good and loving God could be behind the scenes, pulling the strings as it were. I mean, if the God of Christianity exists, then why do children die by the thousands every day—by starvation and disease to name a couple--or why do natural disasters constantly kill significant percentages of the inhabitants of the world in a cyclical fashion? Why is there so much filth, injustice, suffering, disease, abuse, neglect, terror, sorrow, and death in a world supposedly created and sustained by a good and loving God?

One common apologetic response is the “We cannot see the whole picture” adage. I think we’ve all heard this, and maybe thought it: God’s ways are not our ways, therefore while we look at this or that act of suffering, we are not in a position to step back from it as a whole and see how it all woves into the fabric of all of existence. The point articulated here is basically that our view of things is incomplete and because of that we lack a God’s eye view with which to see how the evils in the world relate to one another. Therefore, these acts which we mistakenly characterize as evil could actually be good when the entire picture is unraveled, and thus we lack justification for pinning these evils on the character of God.

 Surprisingly, to some of my readers, I am not sympathetic to this view. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that our vantage point as humans is finite and that we should be careful when attempting to extend this viewpoint beyond its reach to make judgements that we have no right to make. Nevertheless, the aforementioned apologetic script runs into many problems of its own. For instance, if the seeming evils of this world are really instruments for good, then it seems hard to absolve God of the label of evil. For it seems quite obvious that the rape of a woman or the death of a child is evil, and no matter what good comes of it the individual who arranged these events is morally culpable for using these acts of evil as instruments to achieve some good. More than this, the argument could also be made that if God’s purpose is to achieve certain goods, then, since he is omnipotent, he could achieve those goods without the utilization of evil—at least without the evil that is not tied to free will.

However, I still think that even these objections given are wrong-headed, and this is where I make my transition into the real subject of this post. My argument is that all this talk of God as morally culpable or morally virtuous, as well-behaved or misbehaved, is simply the wrong way to conceive of and speak of God’s relation to the world and man. You see, when one begins talking about whether an individual is morally justified or morally culpable regarding specific acts, they are assuming that that individual is a moral agent. That is, they are assuming that the individual is an agent among others and is somehow part of a moral community. When determining one’s moral standing we are asking questions regarding the moral obligations and duties of that individual and how they relate to a moral community, and subsequently we desire to determine whether or not that individual has satisfied those obligations. But the question that needs to be posed with respect to God is whether or not he is a moral agent in this way. And the answer seems to be a resounding “No.”

Remember that God, as classical theism has conceived of him, is not a being among beings, or an agent among agents. He is not, as many contemporary theologians have promulgated, simply a person with all good attributes maximized. That is to say, he is not a being with the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence etc. No, he is being, he is existence, he is goodness etc., and his being is his goodness which is his power which is his knowledge. So the significance of this to our discussion is that God is not a creature among creatures, or a being among beings, or a person among persons, or an agent among agents, or an existent among existents, therefore it seems that God is not one among many, and thus is not part of any moral community. This seems to entail that God is not a moral agent. That is to say, there are no moral obligations or duties that God needs to fulfill, and therefore he cannot be seen as morally virtuous nor unrighteous. Again, these terms simply don’t apply unequivocally or literally to God. God cannot be morally good or evil, the way we use these terms, any more than God can be corporeal.

Now even many Christians, or theists, will feel uncomfortable with this. For isn’t a central claim of orthodox theology (whatever that is) that God is morally good and just? Sure, but classical theists have always understood these terms to apply to God analogously, and not literally—just like any predications of God. So, we can indeed say that God is good, as long we know that we don’t mean that God is literally morally good.

Now the skeptic is most likely yelling at the computer screen right about now, articulating the following response: If this whole post was simply to show that moral terms cannot be applied literally but only analogously, then nothing has been solved. For we can still say that God is analogously evil, instead of literally evil, and the problem of evil still rears its ugly head. However, this is simply not the case, because for a scholastic perfection is the tell-tale standard of goodness, and perfection is achieved when a substance perfectly achieves the ends set down by its nature—that is, when an end is actualized—and evil is seen as a privation—that is, the absence of an end that should have been actualized. Therefore since God is pure actuality and pure being, it follows that he is a perfect being, and thus is good. Furthermore, since God is purely actual then he contains no privations, and thus no evil—again, with the understanding that these terms are being used analogously when applied to God.

So, in the grand scenario of things this means that the problem of evil is a category mistake when promulgated to question the existence of God. The whole talk of good and evil, well behaved and misbehaved, morally culpable or morally virtuous, simply doesn’t apply to God. God is not evil, and he is not good, as long as these are predicated literally.