Monday, August 5, 2013

Kant on the arguments for God's existence

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on the arguments for God's existence
Date: 5th August 2010 13:19

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 27 July, with your essay in response to the University of London examination question, 'Does Kant show what is wrong with all the arguments for God that he examines?'

You asked me to evaluate 'whether my essay style is on the right lines or not.' I am conscious that whatever I say is likely to have an effect on all the work you subsequently send me. I should say right away, that I don't like the question about style, at least in one of its two possible senses.

You could be asking me about the stylistic quality of your writing. That is something that students do ask me about from time to time. My answer is that I couldn't care less about stylistic quality.

You'll be familiar with what Socrates says about 'dialectic' and 'rhetoric' (e.g. in Gorgias). Rhetoric (or 'English Composition' as we'd call it in the UK) is a valid subject. Quality of writing is important, and as I writer I strive for quality. However, it is a point repeatedly made by Plato that a piece of writing can have great quality even though the thoughts which it expresses are confused or false. On the other hand (as I believe) if the thought is coherent, then it is much harder for philosophical writing to lack sufficient quality.

Or to put the matter another way: I prefer to see the bare bones of an argument clearly, even if this requires a certain inelegance, rather than having things smoothed over for overall rhetorical effect. (Which does not mean that I like to see lists of a's and b's, headings and subheadings etc. when these can be avoided.)

There were one or two places where you did express yourself with, possibly, excessive colour for my taste. The remark about the Panzer tank would be one example. (I pictured in my mind a Panzer tank tearing through the forest, and for a moment lost my concentration.)

The other sense of 'style' is more relevant: To get down to basics, what is it that the UoL examiners are looking for?

In your essay you begin by offering some general considerations about the place of the God question in Kant's philosophy. In the context of this specific question, this looks like waffling. I know that it isn't, and that it is justified by what you say after.

Answering the question exactly, paying close attention to the way that it is worded is something that I repeatedly emphasize to my UoL students. An examiner, with a pile of scripts to get through (and I've done this myself) is already coming to a conclusion about your answer by the end of paragraph two. Almost the first thing you say is that 'Kant does not disprove the existence of God. Nor does he try to.' How does that answer the question? The question clearly asks whether Kant showed what is wrong with the three arguments he examines. The point you are making would be a point against a different question.

What are the arguments that Kant examines? That's the first thing. You can then expound on, and analyse Kant's objections to each argument, and then go on to explain how these are all linked. Finally, you can tie everything up with the more general considerations, provided there is time for this, and provided you can show that this is relevant to the question about what is wrong with the arguments (rather than a different question about what this shows about Kant's metaphysics).

In general, the question, 'Do you agree with argument X?' is a question which requires you to analyse argument X and show why you agree or disagree with it The fact that argument X was put forward by philosopher Y who had very interesting views about Z, isn't, prima facie, relevant to the question. If you believe that it is relevant -- as it may well be -- then you have to make a case for its relevance.

All the best,

Geoffrey