After a conversation earlier tonight with a good friend of mine, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of modal intuitions, especially with respect to existence and contingency. It occurs to me that perhaps the division of philosophers with respect to the intelligibility of a maximally great (incontingent) being is caused not by some having a better grasp of syntax or a better grasp of logic or even modality, but rather is being caused by what in some Theological schools has been called the ‘Fundamental option’ (I am not invoking the doctrine deemed heretical by blessed John Paul the Great of ‘Fundamental option theory’ but I do employ something analogous to that concept here). Thus, where Spinoza, Leibniz, Aquinas, Parmenides, Pruss, O’Connor, Gödel and others seem to have similar modal intuitions concerning existence and contingency (leading them to be Theists), others such as Bertrand Russell have different intuitions. In fact, this is highlighted especially well in the famous debate between Bertrand Russell and Fr. Copleston, where the impasse on the cosmological argument from Contingency came to a head with Fr. Copleston saying “Yes, but surely you understand what I mean when I say a necessary being” and Russell replied that he wasn’t sure he did.
For instance, if one is asked Leibniz’ question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, one may conclude that the question involves some syntactical error or confusion, while another takes the question to highlight the indispensability of ‘ultimate’ explanation. Is ‘Being’ itself incontingent or logically necessary? Or perhaps we can ask it, as I have attempted to do in a previous post, in the following way: “Is it logically possible for nothing (not-anything) to exist?” If this question is not intelligible to a given subject then that which it aims to demonstrate (namely the necessity of incontingency) will not run any reasonable chance of being recognized by that given subject. How is one to adjudicate on matters as fundamental as disparate modal intuitions?
What might be responsible for this division of philosophers is precisely their respective religious instincts or dispositions. Religion in general (if I can speak in General about ‘Religion’) is itself a fundamental option to live life in praise of that than which nothing greater can be conceived. The human condition is such that religion is the natural disposition of man – man is naturally religious. Man is not, however, innately religious, for men at various times have been found whose fundamental option has not been to seek ‘God’ (however that translates), but to live in avoidance of him. (It must be understood that what I mean by ‘God’, here, is perhaps better labelled simply the ultimate reality). Thus, the man who chooses to engage the ultimate dimension in the human condition may thereby determine their modal intuitions about existence and contingency.
The problem with this is that it seems as though the impasse which plagued Russell and Copleston is in principle presented to philosophers as an indissoluble fundamental disagreement. This raises questions about the adequacy of modality, Logic, or even analytic philosophy in general, to settle debates surrounding the absurdity of everything without the category of the absolute. Logic is a tool which may not be able in principle to solve problems such as the ultimate reality being unintelligible to some while being self-evident to others.
This may not be the case, but supposing it is for the sake of argument – the absurdity one must appeal to in claiming the absurdity of atheism is not the consequences on modality, or in Logic or philosophy of language (great as they may be), but existential and ultimate absurdity. However, this absurdity remains unintelligible to those for whom the whole category of the ‘ultimate’ in this sense is unintelligible. This kind of impasse seems unacceptable. It entails that the persuasive power of all Modal Ontological arguments, along with all Cosmological arguments from Contingency, is itself contingent upon modal intuitions which are determined by one’s fundamental option. One cannot help but wonder how or in what sense the Church’s teaching that the existence of God can be proved is intended – perhaps the sense of ‘proof’ is not strictly logically, but rather something more holistic. That it is absurd (and only by reason of that irrational) to believe that God does not exist.
This would make sense of the Church’s teaching that man cannot be ‘argued’ into having a fundamentally religious attitude or way-of-being.