Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Must God be a realist?

To: Ryan S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Must God Be a Realist?
Date: 7 June 2001 13:50

Dear Ryan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 31 May, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, 'Must God Be a Realist?'

You quite sensibly exclude from the things an omnipotent God must know, answers to nonsensical questions such as, How many hours are in a mile? You also point out that we cannot always know whether a question is nonsensical or not. So that when a scientist asks, 'Is it the case that XYZ?' there exist three possible answers: It is the case that XYZ; it is not the case that XYZ; and 'It is XYZ' is a nonsensical statement.

Let's take another kind of statement, which I assume you would not wish to say is nonsensical. We are adding grains of sand to a few scattered grains on the floor. At exactly what point does the result become a heap? (The Paradox of the Heap.) The problem is that 'heap' is a vague concept. There is no precise definition of how many sand grains make a heap, how many socks make a heap, etc. The phenomenon of vagueness poses a serious challenge to our understanding of the notion of truth, in some ways quite similar to the realism/ anti-realism debate.

Heap would not be a concept of any use to us, if you had to count the grains of sand in a heap before you could decide whether it was a heap or not.

But now consider this. According to your understanding of 'heap', adding a single grain of sand cannot turn something which was not a heap into something which is a heap. The difference is too small. But it follows logically from this that no amount of sand is a heap!

One thing we might conclude from this example is that vague concepts are not part of God's vocabulary. The are useful to us because our knowledge and the means of acquiring it are limited. In that case, however, the universe that God inhabits is a very different place from the one we inhabit. Take away qualitative concepts like colour, smell, sound etc, take away all the concepts with any kind of vague borderline, such as 'car', 'table', 'house' and there is not much left.

Worst of all, not knowing how things are for us in our world, God doesn't really know a great deal about us.

To sum up: God's fully determinate universe, where no fact goes unnoted, has produced us, and we have produced vagueness. So God's fully determinate universe contains vagueness.

That might not be a worry. After all, there is still an important distinction between the way vague statements lack a determinate truth value, and the way in which it is alleged by the anti-realist that statements about the past which we can neither verify or falsify lack a determinate truth value.

But couldn't God deliberately choose to make an anti-realist universe? In the Metaphysics program, I describe a model for global anti-realism, according to which the thing we call the 'actual world' is merely a set of overlapping possible worlds. Like a novelist who does not bother to dot every 'i' and cross every 't', perhaps God deliberately leaves out details of the story of his creation.

This is a question that one ought to address if one wishes to answer the question, 'Must God be a Realist?' Does God's omnipotence stretch to making a universe full of 'gaps in the story' a universe in which - in effect - anti-realism is true?

Another point to consider. It is crucial to the expression of the realist's belief that truth does not depend on knowledge. So if everything is known, then the question of the truth of realism does not even arise. In order to make the theory of realism as the realist intends it true, Surely God would have to make a universe where some actual truths were true despite the fact that they were not known to be true, either by us or by God.

If you believe in God, ought you to be a Realist? Consider any unanswerable question, of the form, 'Is it the case that P?' By hypothesis, God knows the answer. However, we have ruled out the possibility that God could convey his knowledge to us (if he could, the question would not be unanswerable so far as we were concerned). Isn't there still scope to be an anti-realist? The anti-realist says, 'The universe might be a universe where God knows that P, or the universe might be a universe where God knows that not-P. However, there is nothing *in reality* that determines which of these two possible universes is the actual universe!'

Although I seem to be saying that you have left a lot of things out of your essay, I do like the clear and simple way you have set it out. The first paragraph is just right in focusing the question of the 'kind of God we are taking about'.

All the best,

Geoffrey