Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Xenophanes: God in religion and in philosophy

To: Namet I.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Xenophanes: God in religion and in philosophy
Date: 17 November 2006 10:47

Dear Namet,

Thank you for your email of 8 November with your essay for units 4-6 of the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled 'God in Religion and in Philosophy'.

Although the ostensible subject of your essay is Xenophanes' views on god and religion, the essay also covers his epistemology.

There are several points I would like to comment on in this interesting essay. I shall use my own numbering.

1. I am not sure how you get the conclusion that according to Xenophanes, 'about other sciences, one could have true knowledge, for instance in medicine.' I accept that this is not an implausible claim, if we understand medicine, not as a theoretical science but rather as a collection of remedies and observations. 'Chewing peppermint leaves helps with indigestion', 'hot wine mixed with honey is good for colds' and so on. In other words, human beings have knowledge of the things within their direct purview. There is no suggestion in Xenophanes of Cartesian doubt about perception. However, as soon as one ascends to questions of theory, only a being who can directly *see* the things that we theorise about is capable of knowledge of those things.

2. Xenophanes point about the Ethiopians and Thracians can be put like this. The credentials for a belief can be doubted whenever we have a plausible or probable explanation of that belief whose validity does not require that the belief is true. Thracians believe that god has red hair, because they have red hair, and not because they have ever seen a red haired god.

However, I don't see how one can draw the conclusion that belief can become knowledge if one adds 'knowledge that one holds the belief'. I hold the belief that a parcel I ordered is coming today. I believe it because I was told this in an email. However, I have sometimes been promised things in emails in the past and been disappointed. So my grounds are not sufficient for a claim to knowledge. The knowledge that I hold the belief does not make the belief knowledge. However, it could be argued that in many cases a necessary step to acquiring knowledge is the realization that one does not yet have it.

3. Some very interesting thoughts about god's mobility. It does seem very ungodlike for the deity to 'twist and turn' in order to acquire knowledge. However, I am not sure that this is the reason. Imagine a god who is a swarm of invisible eyes - like an ant colony - able to traverse the universe at great speed and get into every nook and cranny. That picture is sufficiently different from that of a human being, who is stuck in one point of view. I think that Xenophanes would reply that god does not need 'eyes'. He knows things directly, because he is everywhere. And because he is everywhere, there is no 'place' where god could move.

4. The question of mental 'movement' is more difficult. Later, under the influence of Parmenides and Plato, God would be seen as existing outside time. Only thoughts which occur in time can be said to 'move'. However, a physically 'immobile' god is not necessarily mentally immobile unless one adds the materialist premiss that mental activity is a physical process in a brain, or something that works like a brain. This idea does make an appearance with the atomists, who held that thought and consciousness were nothing more than movements of atoms. The suggestion would be totally foreign to Xenophanes who like Anaximander, Anaximenes, Empedocles, Anaxagoras held that mind is something that exists in addition to matter.

5. I like your criticism of Xenophanes' argument for the proposition that god is uncreated. Greater things can come from lesser. What Xenophanes needs is a much stronger premiss, the kind of thing that is appealed to in the ontological argument for the existence of God. But Xenophanes is quite a distance away from formulating any such notion.

6. Again, some very interesting reflections on the governance and politics of a multiple-god universe. There is more than a passing resemblance here to what Hobbes says in Leviathan about the need for an absolute monarch. Xenophanes can happily accept the idea that there are beings whom we call 'gods' because of their vastly greater powers - he can accept the entire Greek Pantheon, if it wasn't for the fact that the grounds for believing in its existence are so flimsy - because these so-called 'gods' are just limited beings, located in space. The distance between such beings and the one god who is everywhere is as great as the distance of that god from us.

All the best,

Geoffrey