God and Lucifer

Kenny asked:

Who can explain why Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) are regarded as monotheistic religions whilst they recognise Satan/ Lucifer as an evil immortal powerful force (a god… an evil god). Is Satan/ Lucifer not part of the whole system of beliefs? These religions believe he exists and they believe he has power… an evil power. That means Lucifer is an enemy of their god (Divine being, High Spirit) he is an opposition, meaning he is a god himself. Then logically there are at least two gods in these religions.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Over millennia, Lucifer has been regarded as the personification of evil, although the recent TV series (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4052886/) has gone a long way to rehabilitate his image. Is Lucifer a man? a very powerful man? a kind of a god, maybe? What does it take to make a ‘god’?

Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Xenophanes posed this question.  Possibly influenced by stories about a people who believed in one all-powerful God, he argued that the gods on Mount Olympus were too human-like to be worthy of worship.

One of Xenophanes’ arguments — which interestingly resembles the case made by Hobbes for a single Sovereign in Leviathan two millennia years later — is that if you have two or more gods their power is limited by the need to agree with one another on a course of action. The same argument presumably applies, with greater force, to two rival gods (a ‘good’ god and an ‘evil’ god) in permanent opposition to one another.

Traditional theology solves the problem by making the one God ‘infinite’ in power, knowledge and goodness. In a universe ruled by an infinite deity, a being such as Lucifer must necessarily play a subordinate role. He may have power to influence human beings but he exists only at God’s pleasure. An infinite being can snuff out a finite being in an instant.

So that would be one answer to your question.

However, from around the 20th century onwards, theology has become more equivocal on the nature of the one God, with some philosophers such as William James arguing for a deity who is finite in power, although still incapable of intentionally committing an evil act. Such a being would find itself in serious contention with a finitely powerful being who was willing, on occasion, to choose evil over good. (There’s no reason to go the whole hog and make Lucifer incapable of ever doing good. Why?)

Then, as you say, we would have two ‘gods’. But is either god on this scenario worthy of worship? You can cheer for your ‘God’ and boo Lucifer. Or, if you are that way inclined you can support Lucifer’s heroic resistance against a being who is simply ‘too good’ for the rest of us.

I don’t have a horse in this race. Make up any story you like. Maybe out there in the universe there are ‘good’ aliens who made us and ‘bad’ aliens who want to destroy us. Or maybe the ‘good’ aliens have gone ‘bad’ (as in Prometheus and Alien Covenant). It’s just a story, and stories are for children.

An argument for a finite god, which seems pretty strong to me, is that given that the universe is finite, any effect on the universe caused by a supposedly ‘infinite’ being can be matched by an effect caused by a sufficiently powerful finite being. The notion of ‘infinity’ is redundant. (This bears on the Teleological and Cosmological arguments: cf. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Kant’s discussion of the arguments for the existence of God in his Critique of Pure Reason.)

The ontological argument, on the other hand, allegedly ‘proves’ the existence of an infinite being but I have yet to see a convincing version of it. If you are a believer of the traditional kind, or find the ontological argument convincing, then a question to ponder would be why such a God allows for the existence of Lucifer — which relates to the ‘Problem of Evil’.

But that’s another story.

Location of the ‘soul’

Gerald asked:

Is the soul in the body or the body in the soul?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The alternative you pose does not cover all the possibilities. The third option one has to consider (there may be more) is that there is no such thing as ‘soul’, only body.

However, for the sake of this question I will assume that we are not considering materialism as an alternative.

‘Soul in the body’ looks like dualism of the Cartesian variety. However, Descartes was quite explicit that what he termed ‘mental substance’ has none of the properties of ‘material substance’. In order to be located ‘in’ your body, your soul would have to possess the property of location in space. This cannot be, according to Descartes.

He is in fact scathing in his dismissal of the popular idea of the soul as ‘a breath of wind, a vapour’. The nearest equivalent to this idea is the Spiritualist notion of ‘ectoplasm’. You might have seen the black and white or sepia toned photographs of semi-transparent ‘sheets’ coming out of a human body. (Back then photography was a new science and the more gullible public were not aware of the possibility of tricks using double exposure.)

Prior to a proof of the existence of God who is ‘not a deceiver’, it is conceivable, Descartes says, that there might be no such thing as material substance. What appears as a ‘material world’ could just be a coherent dream produced by an ‘evil demon’. However, as there is a God, we can rest assured that what appears as a ‘material world’ really is so.

The Cartesian view would be that the experience of of my being located in this body, looking through these eyes, etc. is the result of interaction between my non-located mental substance (soul) and my material body. The locus of interaction, Descartes believed for obscure reasons, was the pineal gland.

What about the alternative, ‘body in the soul’? At first sight this looks nonsensical, but if we discard the notion of physical location, this perfectly fits the Berkeleian idealist theory of the soul as a ‘finite spirit’, taking in ‘ideas’ of material objects including the body, all contained in the one ‘infinite spirit’ or God.

Berkeley would say that, logically, there is nothing even an all-powerful God can do to ‘create’ a ‘real material world’, in addition to our reliable experience of being embodied and living in a world of material things. The very notion of ‘matter’ in the Cartesian sense is nonsensical.

According to Berkeley, God creates the idea of ‘my body’ as an ‘archetype’, while the ‘ectype’ or partial copy of that idea is contained in my conscious mind, along with ideas of all the other material objects in my environment. (The nearest analogy would be a 3-D computer game, where the subject exploring the virtual world — pursuing or being pursued by aliens, for example — is depicted on the screen either from the first-person or third-person point of view.)

So, who is it to be, Descartes or Berkeley?

If you are inclined to consider Occam’s Razor as relevant to metaphysics, then it does seem that Descartes’ ‘material substance’ has no meaningful role to play, other than as a guarantor that our ‘dream of a material world’ will continue sufficiently reliably to allow for the pursuit of science. The laws of nature will not change. We do not need to worry about ‘waking up’.

In response, Descartes would say that a Berkeleian world is one of perpetual deception. Why would God make us believe in the existence of matter, when in reality there is no such thing? Then again, wasn’t it Descartes himself who said that it was up to us to use our powers of judgement responsibly? And isn’t that precisely the point Berkeley wanted to make — that responsible reflection on the popular or philosophical (e.g. Lockean) notion of ‘matter’ shows that the very idea of such a thing is non-functional, a spinning wheel, otiose?

— If you believe in a ‘soul’, of course.

I want to study philosophy on my own

Navid asked:

So, I am attempting learn philosophy on my own. To be specific, I want to know what you can tell me about learning to understand philosophical thinking and philosophical texts. How do I learn the language and the process of analyzing philosophical arguments and also crafting such arguments?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I guess, Navid, the question I’d ask you is, Why? Why learn philosophy on your own? what are you afraid of? being confused by the opinions of others? being made to look foolish? There will always be cleverer students than you, and a lot more who are less clever.

Sure, you can learn a lot by yourself, reading classic philosophical texts and trying to grapple with them. That would be one way. (You can start by looking at Section 3 of the Pathways Introductory Book List.)

But how can you tell whether you’re making headway, when you only have yourself to judge your progress? You may think you’ve ‘cracked’ Hume, say, or Plato, but maybe you were just making up your own idiosyncratic interpretation as you went along.

Yet some do it – successfully. Read the classic text first, then test your initial interpretation against the editor’s or translator’s Introduction, or modern secondary texts. (A big error students make is reading the secondary material first, so they never get to first base learning how to grapple with a text because it’s all laid out for them.)

Maybe, when you’ve been doing this for a while, you will begin to feel a strong urge to discuss your ideas with others. There are lots of philosophy forums out there. I’m not saying it’s an easy task deciding which ones are worth joining. You have to use your best judgement. But you were doing that anyway, deciding what to read, forming a view of what you’ve read. Discovering who is your ‘favourite philosopher’ maybe.

There’s a term you may have heard before, ‘autodidact’. It means that you taught (didact) yourself (auto). It can be done. Forums can help. The biggest stumbling block, however, is writing. Who is going to read what you write? Other autodidacts? That’s one of the main reasons why one takes a university or college course – to have the opportunity to have your work assessed by persons qualified to judge.

Something I haven’t mentioned: you will discover that there is no single agreed standard for the ‘language and process of analyzing philosophical arguments’. It all depends whether you study, say, at the University of London, or the University of the Sorbonne – or the University of Tehran.

Maybe, after you’ve done a bit of reading, you will have a better idea of how you want to take things to the next stage. You could do worse than join our own school, Pathways to Philosophy.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Minnie asked:

Why is there something instead of nothing? Is this a profound question or
is it as Richard Dawkins maintains a “senseless question”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Hello, Minnie. Did you come across my recent blog post ‘The One’ discussing this question by any chance?


The short answer to your question is that ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ is both senseless and profound. It is profound because we don’t know exactly what sense to make of it. It’s senselessness is not patently obvious, not even if you have an IQ as high as that of Richard Dawkins.

When we think of the way things ‘might have been’ there is always an unspoken assumption about the vantage point from which one is asking the question. ‘Might I have been an astronaut?’ is a question that only makes sense on the assumption that I was in fact born and didn’t die in infancy. ‘Might the human race never have evolved?’ is a question which assumes the prior existence of life on Earth, which might have taken a different evolutionary turn from the one it actually took.

If you ask the question, ‘Might there have been nothing?’ what exactly does that assume? The best one can say here is that it assumes a ‘picture’ whose meaning is not altogether clear, a picture of a range of possibilities (or ‘possible worlds’) one of which is completely blank or empty. By definition, there is only one such possible world (if it is possible). In the same way, there is only one ‘null set’ in set theory.

But this is where things begin to get confusing. The null set (symbolized as { }) is definitely something and not nothing. It is a so-called ‘pure abstract object’, which exists in all possible worlds. You can construct a model for the natural numbers using the null set as a starting point. Just say that zero equals the null set, and any number n is the set of all numbers from 0 to n-1. So 1 is the set containing the null set, 2 is the set containing the null set, together with the set containing the null set, and so on.

So we need to sharpen the idea of the one possible world where ‘there is nothing’ to exclude abstract objects such as sets and numbers which exist in all possible worlds, including the one world where abstract objects are the only entities that exist. Let’s call this the world where there is ‘physically nothing’ (or maybe ‘physically and/ or mentally nothing’, if you’re tempted by idealism).

A world where there is physically nothing cannot be conceived as ’empty space’, even though it is tempting to do so. Isaac Newton thought of space as an infinite container, the ‘sensorium of God’. However, since Relativity that concept of space is no longer accepted. Space requires matter, there cannot be pure empty space.

Then again, if we are considering all possible worlds, then surely we should be considering worlds where the laws of nature are different from the way they are in the actual world? In that case, there’s a whole bunch of ‘possible Newtonian worlds’, in addition to a whole bunch of ‘possible Einsteinian worlds’.

So there is after all a possible Newtonian world where God’s sensorium is empty. But I almost forgot, you still have God. Or maybe this is the possible world in which He died?

All we are doing here is playing with pictures. The mental picture of an ’empty container’, for example. You might say that something undoubtedly does exist. Descartes would reply that lacking proof of God’s existence, we are not entitled to say for sure that that ‘something’ is physical. Maybe all there is, is me and the evil demon. But even in the evil demon scenario, there is something: my mental life, my experience of ‘seeming to exist in a world’. Suppose, in this scenario, I die. Then the evil demon dies. Then what?

In my blog post referred to above, I speculated about the meaning of Heidegger’s notorious statement, ‘Nothing noths.’ There seems to be something wrong with stating that a world where there is physically and mentally nothing ‘is’ a possible world. How can we even speak or write the words, ‘Nothing is…’? The only thing one can speak or write is whatever remains after you have taken away every possible descriptive term that can be appended to the term, ‘Nothing.’ There is nothing that nothing can be or do… except noth. (Apologies to any logical positivist reading this.)

Is that it? Is that all one can say?

Taking our cue from arithmetic and set theory, if we are prepared to accept that pure abstract objects exist in all possible worlds — I mean, if we are happy with talk of abstract objects, happy using the notion of possible worlds as a term of art — why not just say that the idea that there ‘might have been nothing’ is absurd for the simple reason that the set of all possible worlds is most definitely something and not nothing.

There’s a big gap between all possible worlds, and the actual world containing you and me, and that gap has to be explained somehow. (E.g. If everything began with a Big Bang, how did ‘it’ choose how to bang?) But that question is a different question from the one that you asked.