PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 75 11th January 2004
I. Pathways to Philosophy - Spreading the Word
II. On God and 'I': A Response to Geoffrey Klempner by David Robjant
III. 'The Solipsist' by James Martin
The first issue of 2004 sees the launch of a new campaign, 'Spreading the Word' to increase the number of web links to the Pathways sites. I hope that readers of Philosophy Pathways will find time to help with the campaign.
The second feature in this issue is prompted by a question posted at the beginning of December on Ask a Philosopher. The questioner quotes a response from Paul Monfils, a Catholic Deacon, to an answer I gave back in April-May 2000 concerning my objection to the notion of an 'all-knowing' deity. A couple of weeks later, I posted my reply to the Deacon alongside the replies of Rachel Browne, Kim Boley and Henk Tuten. Now David Robjant has written a carefully argued rejoinder which I reproduce below. I shall make my reply to David Robjant in the next issue.
Also in this issue - on a not unconnected theme - a poem by Pathways student James Martin entitled 'The Solipsist'.
I. PATHWAYS TO PHILOSOPHY - SPREADING THE WORD
Over Christmas and the new year, Pathways and the ISFP were showered with good wishes. Here is just a small sample:
"The Newsletter has been a constant source of inspiration
and interest to me throughout 2003. Thanks for all the very
hard work you have done - it's very much appreciated!!"
"I want to thank you for what I've learned so far. I find
what the ISFP does important, and I'm proud to be a member
and enthusiastic supporter."
"This is a great service for philosophy itself. You have
done a marvelous thing in providing certain ground for
bringing lovers of wisdom together."
"You have given philosophy a fresh spirit and renewed
purpose for those who participate in your Pathways and
Journals. They truly inspire and educate."
"I always found your approach to a 'global philosophers
cafe' convincing and hope to lure some more visitors to it
and make it grow in extent and quality."
"Thank you for being part of something I believe to be
an absolute necessity in bringing about a saner, more
peaceful world. The Philosophical Society, especially
with your participation in it, is a class act. And besides
the regular letters and essays, I have immensely enjoyed
reading your personal works."
"I've been meaning to tell you...how much I've enjoyed
the Pathways Newsletter, particularly the socio-political
"I had just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance when I came across The Possible World Machine.
Actually, it would be more appropriate to say that the PWM
answered my call - I am sure you know that sometimes we
find things, and sometimes they find us. So thank you for
"I think your organization is important...I wish we had
more like it here in the ol' USA..."
Yet, despite all this generous praise, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion Pathways to Philosophy is still one of the best-kept secrets on the internet.
Looking around the internet, I come across many far less worthy philosophy web sites which receive more visitors and far better known thanks to aggressive marketing.
A few years ago, when I put the first Pathways pages on the web, I would regularly e-mail web masters offering to exchange links. Nowadays, I find that I have less and less time for web surfing.
That is why I am asking you, the readers of Philosophy Pathways, to help spread the word.
If you come across a philosophy related web site with a links page which doesn't include a link to Pathways, write a polite e-mail to the webmaster suggesting that they add one. You can also mention the PhiloSophos Knowledge Base and the ISFP home page:
Pathways to Philosophy Distance Learning Program
PhiloSophos Knowledge Base
International Society for Philosophers
Web sites promoting e-zines will be suitable for links to Philosophy Pathways and our new Philosophy for Business newsletters:
Philosophy Pathways e-journal
Philosophy for Business e-journal
Here are the other Pathways sites:
The Ten Big Questions
The Possible World Machine
The Glass House Philosopher
Philosophy of A-Z
For example, the web master of a science fiction site will be interested to hear about The Possible World Machine.
If you get some success, and web masters write back to you then please forward the e-mails to me so that I can keep track of our web links campaign, and also add reciprocal links.
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2004
II. ON GOD AND 'I': A RESPONSE TO GEOFFREY KLEMPNER BY DAVID ROBJANT
The following is from Ask a Philosopher answers page 24: ../questions/answers24.html
Geoffrey Klempner offered the following thesis:
"I have an objection to the definition of God as 'all
knowing'. I'll leave you to consider whether or not you
think that it is convincing. Being all knowing, God sees
things from every point of view, including yours and mine.
He knows what it is like to be you, and he knows what it is
like to be me. But it seems to me that I know something God
does not, and cannot know. What God knows is only what
things are like for someone satisfying my total
description. He knows, for example, what it is like to be
struggling with this question. But what God cannot know is
what it is like for the individual satisfying that total
description to be I. From God's point of view, every
individual is 'I'. From my point of view, only one is."
Please comment on this response from Paul Monfils a Catholic
"The statement "what God cannot know is what it is like for
the individual satisfying that total description to be I"
would be more accurately restated: "from my limited
perspective, based upon nothing more than my limited human
intellect, it seems to me that God could not know what it
is like for the individual satisfying that total
description to be I". Or to put it another way, "using
nothing more than my flawed and finite human nature, I am
incapable of comprehending how God could possibly know what
it is like for the individual satisfying that total
description to be I". Stated in this way it is apparent
that no limitation on the part of God is suggested, but
rather the sheer futility of a creature's efforts to
understand his Creator; of the finite seeking to comprehend
the infinite by finite means. Any statement which begins
"what God cannot know" presumes far too much -- that I can
validly equate my finite logical perception of God's
capacity to know with His actual infinite capacity to know.
"Once this philosophical quandary is stated more accurately,
as my inability to comprehend how God could have access to
particular knowledge, the answer is obvious -- "of course
you can't understand how God could know this, but you can
nevertheless know with certainty that God does know,
because He has revealed His infinite and omniscient nature,
and knows ALL, which would necessarily include everything
which you are incapable of comprehending His capacity to
know". Not only does God know "what it is like to be I",
but He knows it perfectly, while I myself only know it
Geoffrey Klempner replied:
"I am perfectly happy to preface every statement I make in
the context of philosophical discourse (including this one)
with the disclaimer, "From my limited perspective, based
upon nothing more than my limited human intellect it seems
to me that...". That used to be the accepted literary style
for philosophers, e.g. Augustine in the Confessions. "O God,
I know I am a complete ignoramus, and you understand things
infinitely better than I do, but might it possibly be the
case that...?", and so on. But such self-effacing language
did not prevent Augustine from doing ground-breaking work
on the philosophy of time.
"A disclaimer which applies equally to every statement one
makes has no force whatsoever.
"There appears to be a special problem with philosophical
arguments which rule out the possibility of something.
Isn't it harder to prove a negative? It is hard to prove
that there are no unicorns, because this would require
investigating every place in the universe that unicorns
might be. However, in philosophy, we prove things by means
of logical argument. (Again, it is our best judgement
concerning what is "logical" or a "proof", but this goes
without saying.) And there can be logical arguments to the
effect that "such-and-such is an impossibility".
"My argument concerns a definition of God's 'omniscience'
offered by a philosopher. On a certain, plausible view of
'omniscience', I argue, an omniscient God cannot know the
difference between my existence and G.K.s existence. The
argument may be considered as a challenge. Of course, the
theologian is free to say that if and when philosophy fails
us, when it cannot meet the challenges set to it in the way
that we would like, there is still room for faith. (That
sounds close to Kant's view, although Kant held something
stronger: that it is the task of his philosophy to
demonstrate the limits of reason, in order to make room for
faith.) However, one should never be complacent about the
fact that one does not understand something. Especially in
this case, where -- at least in the Judeo-Christian
tradition -- it is a matter of central importance that God
knows me as this unique I. That is why those who accept
the comforts of religion have no reason to scorn
I'm not sure that I understand GK's argument correctly. His answer to this provocation may help make that clear. But for the moment, and if I do understand GK's argument, then it seems to me that, though it appears valid, his argument proves too much.
If I understand it, GK's argument that God cannot be omniscient turns on the difference between knowing a comprehensive set of facts about a subject's experiences (we are presently assuming that such a set is possible) and actually having those experiences. Because God is God and I am me, God can't have my experiences in the way that I have them. Therefore (the argument runs) there is at least one thing that God cannot know, namely, "what it is like" to have these experiences as I have them: "God cannot know is what it is like for the individual satisfying that total description to be I".
At first glance this kind of argument looks to be right. If we want to see any problems with it, we will need to break it down and look at it's workings. I await GK's correction, but the conclusion seems to follow from these two plausible premises:
1. Omniscience is knowledge not only of all facts about all experiences but also knowledge of "what it is like" for each and every subject.
2. To know perfectly "what it is like" for me is to have my history, limitations, pains, and desires, or, in short: to know "what it is like [to be me]" is to be me.
From these two premises, a contradiction in God's omniscience can be quickly derived as follows. Supposing God is omniscient according to the definition of omniscience given in (1), it is definitive of his omniscience that he cannot successfully inhabit my poor limited view of the world. But if he cannot successfully inhabit my poor limited view of the world, then, given the definition of knowing what it is like offered in (2), there must be one thing that God does not know, namely, what it is like to be me. Therefore God is not Omniscient.
Now, I contend that this valid argument proves too much, proves something altogether implausible, and therefore ought to give us a reason to reject one or both of the premises I have identified in the argument (always supposing that I've got the right end of the stick about GK's argument in the first place.)
What 'too much' does it prove?
The argument proves, rather implausibly, that central human cases of knowing perfectly well 'what it is like' for another are a sham. They will be, according to the argument, cases of imperfect knowledge limited by partial information, and limited in that they never could come to have anything more than partial information. That is, they are conjecture. Surmise. Inference.
But this kind of view about knowledge of the feelings of others doesn't tally with real life, or with our use of 'know'.
My companion falls, grazes her knee on the pavement, and wails. I rush to her with a hand outstretched. Granted, I am not omniscient as God is defined to be. But why should I say that my knowledge of what it is like for her in that moment of pain is 'imperfect'? I can see what she is going through. It is there on her face - perhaps in the movements of her whole body. Another example. She contorts in grief at the death of a loved one. Again I know her feelings. I feel with her (com-passion, mit-gefuhl), and my attitude towards her is bound up with my immediate and certain knowledge of her experiences. I don't see why I should be forced to say that I know her grief inadequately or imperfectly, merely on the grounds that I am me, and she is she. I can just see her pain.
The suggestion that our knowledge of what it is like for another must always be imperfect is odd, when we put it into particular human contexts. Premise (2) demands exactly this caveat, that we can never perfectly know what it is like for another. This is used by GK (it seems) as an argument to limit God's knowledge. My present objection is that if (2) were accepted, it would limit our knowledge too, and in quite implausible ways.
Now it it is quite true that for all kinds of reasons I might overlook or fail to pick up on what another is feeling, and that I am better with some people than with others, and so on. That's not to the point. The point is that the quite general prohibition on attaining perfect knowledge of 'what it is like' for another, the prohibition which is contained in premise (2), contradicts our experiences. Just one instance of sure and perfect knowledge of what it is like for another (someone with quite distinct history etc to oneself) will falsify (2), and, with it, the argument here deployed by GK against the omniscience of God. And it seems to me that there are plenty of suitable examples.
None of which is to argue that God either exists or is omniscient. It is to provoke a clarification from GK in which he will no doubt distance his argument from that which I have guessed at, and in a way conducive to understanding his point.
As a postscript, I will add that in my view it is not conceivable that there is some comprehensive set of facts about a subject's experience. If knowing such a comprehensive set of facts is held to be a necessary condition of omniscience, no one and nothing can be omniscient.
(c) David Robjant 2003
III. 'THE SOLIPSIST' BY JAMES MARTIN
Sometimes, when the best luck can be random or by any circumstance be known, when the idler in search of time and himself hangs for one more day to confront his lonely self-longing for all things past or yet to come
where hope may yield in the shortest spans of time and distance, a single thing be known by all who mind and body bent,
Where no debate, no rule, no argument care to impose itself again for the sake of an ever-creating universe where even gods concur:
That our search for self begins and ends with us, and we will never know the heart of another, their awareness, their sense of being or purpose, or the why or wherefore of it all --
Or even a single fragment of it. And when we think of ourselves, we think alone. For what else can there be to think about?
But in our longing, still, there rests the one glorious hope that gives us breath, both first and last:
That we be loved for who we think we are, and be loved until our death, and in return see clearly to love is to love the other best.
(c) James Martin 2003