Occam's Blog

The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Gilson – Some Preliminary Thoughts

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I recently finished *The Unity of Philosophical Experience* by the Thomist historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson. It’s not a light read and I need to go back through it more slowly to really understand it, but if Gilson is right it’s a huge achievement.

Basically, one argument against doing metaphysics is that we’ve been trying to do it for thousands of years and made no progress, so we should give up and be pragmatists. But what Gilson argues is that a close reading of the history of philosophy shows that nearly every major systematic metaphysician was approaching metaphysics using methods appropriated from some other discipline. One example that most philosophy enthusiasts are familiar with is Descartes, who approached metaphysics using the methods of geometry.

If Gilson is right, this objection to doing metaphysics fails, because metaphysics has in fact very rarely been done on its own terms. And he presents a lot of plausible evidence and arguments to show that he is right in this book.

I don’t know that Gilson is right, though. It’s difficult for me to tell, because there are just so many claims in the book that I would need to check. It’s a highly erudite book – I think someone could easily spend several years just checking all of Gilson’s facts and interpretations.


Written by William

April 7, 2020 at 7:15 am

Brand Blanshard Quote

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“The [person] who has the least to regret, who does most for the community, whose judgment carries the most weight and is the most trusted, is the [one] who is steadfastly and on principle reasonable. I do not mean the ‘intellectual’, who is often an impractical bore. I mean the person who, both in matters of belief and matters of action, takes as his principle: Adjust your belief or decision to the evidence.”

Credit: https://the-1000-year-view.com/2019/07/28/wise-paths-to-happiness/

Written by William

September 6, 2019 at 9:19 am

The “Ask and Listen” Method of Persuasion

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Betsy Speicher is an Objectivist author. I’ve tried her “Ask and Listen” method a few times, and it seems to work more often than other methods of persuasion.

The premise of the method is that the person you’re talking to has some set of concerns leading them to hold their position, and these concerns have to be addressed to get them to change their mind. Accordingly, the method has two steps: (1) Ask a lot of questions and listen carefully to the answers until you fully understand the concerns leading the other person to hold their position. (2) At that point, present a response that directly addresses all of the person’s concerns.

This doesn’t work if the other person doesn’t hold their position honestly. You can tell that someone doesn’t hold their position honestly in part by whether they evade when you make a point they can’t answer. (The method also doesn’t work if the person has concerns you can’t address, obviously.)

Written by William

August 31, 2019 at 7:56 am

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The standard of proof for a religion should be very high.

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Most religions ask their followers to live by their tenets, make large personal sacrifices on the basis of their truth, and pass laws that affect other people. The standard of proof for a claim, before we do all of that on the assumption that it is true, needs to be very high.

Could we be able to show that a religion is merely plausible, rather than demonstrable to a high degree of certainty? In principle, sure, but it would just be an intellectual curiosity. “Plausibility” wouldn’t warrant a reasonable person in committing their life to the religion, or passing laws that affect other people who hold to different religions or no religion at all.

For example, take the recent abortion ban in Alabama. If we’re going to send a doctor to prison for 99 years for performing an abortion, our grounds for doing so need to meet a very high standard of cogency. You can’t send a doctor to prison for 99 years based on a personal surmise, you have to know that you are doing the right thing. So if our grounds for passing this law are religious, then they need to be up to that standard.

So I think atheists are entitled to hold religious people to a very high standard of proof.

Written by William

June 3, 2019 at 8:07 am

Posted in religion and atheism

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New Avatar

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I changed my avatar to a nice simple black dollar sign on a white background.


This is a better representation of my values than my old avatar. If you want to understand those values better, you should read Ayn Rand’s novels, particularly the so-called “money speech” from Atlas Shrugged which has been reproduced in various places online and in print.

A couple of excerpts:

“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d.‘Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value.”


“Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. This is the code of existence whose tool and symbol is money. Is this what you consider evil?”

Finally, I’m not going to ruin the plot or even give the full sentence, but the last five words of Atlas Shrugged are “the sign of the dollar.” Rand had a good reason for ending the novel on those words.

(Believe it or not, I’m still around. I visit this blog nearly every day for at least a few minutes. I just haven’t been posting much.)

Written by William

April 6, 2019 at 6:54 pm

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Plotinus’ System

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I just took notes on something about Plotinus. I’m going to summarize it here, because that helps me remember what I read. I do not believe any of this, I am just summarizing Plotinus for my own benefit. I’ll add my own comments at the end.


In Plotinus’ system, everything emanates necessarily from the Divine and strives to return there. The Divinity is a graded Triad consisting of three hypostases:

  1. The One,
  2. The Divine Mind, and
  3. The All-Soul.

I’ll go over each of these in turn.

The One is unknowable, because it transcends the knowable. It negates all quality, including qualities like goodness and existence. We can still refer to it as “the Good,” in the sense that it is the goal everything strives toward. We can also refer to it as “existing” if we keep in mind that this only means it does not have the quality of nonexistence.

The One is not Creator or the First Cause – the Creator falls lower in the Divine hierarchy. It has Supra-Existence, and acts in an eternal Super-Act. Nothing could exist without it. Language drives us to speak of it as a cause, meaning its perfection implies an act of producing something else. The most perfect thing is a mind, so it produces the Divine Mind.

The Divine Mind or Intellectual-Principle, unlike the One, is something that existence may be affirmed of. It is an Intelligence, and a mediation to us of the One. It is the beginning of plurality and complexity, and it contains the Divine Thoughts (these are Plato’s Forms – Plotinus is heavily influenced by Plato). The Divine Ideas are the archetypes of everything that exists in the lower spheres.

The Divine Mind contains all particular minds, which are “shadows” of the Divine Mind. It cannot be unproductive, because its Act of Thought comes with an Act of Act. Therefore, the Divine Thinking creates the All-Soul.

The All-Soul is an eternal emanation of the the Divine Mind. The Divine Mind has two Acts: it contemplates the One, and it generates that which is lower in the hierarchy. Likewise, the All-Soul has two Acts: It contemplates the Divine Mind, and it generates the lower realms upon the model of the Divine Ideas. We can verbally partition these two aspects or acts of the All-Soul by referring to them as the Leading Principle of the Soul and the Lower Soul, respectively.

The All-Soul is the Logos or ordering principle of the universe, the mobile cause of movement and form, and the Creator of everything lower. As its name suggests, it includes all souls.


This is very weird stuff. My understanding is that Plotinus claimed to know all of this through mystical experience, which explains the apparent arbitrariness of his worldview. Nevertheless, he does offer arguments for some aspects of it, and I may cover those arguments later.

Written by William

March 22, 2018 at 2:56 pm

“The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant

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I just finished this book, and I thought I would recommend it here. Will Durant is a famous historian who wrote an eleven volume series on the history of the world, together with Ariel Durant, who I assume is his daughter. The Durants are known for having a beautiful writing style.

The Lessons of History is a summary of what Durant learned about human nature over the fifty years he spent assembling his massive series on the history of civilization, distilled down to about 100 pages. As you would expect, it is a fascinating book. I think a historian could choose almost any individual sentence in this book and write a whole book explaining the evidence for that sentence, and that book would still be quite interesting in its own right.

If you’re interested in potentially buying the book or borrowing it from a library, there is a free preview on Amazon.

Written by William

September 10, 2017 at 11:08 am

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Swinburne’s Concept of Omniscience

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I’ve long been an advocate of the omniscience – free will paradox as an objection to the existence of God.

Briefly, the argument goes like this:

  1. If God is omniscient, then he already knows what I will do next.
  2. If God already knows what I will do next, then I do not have free will.
  3. Therefore, if God is omniscient, I do not have free will.

A naive response to this argument is that God’s knowing what I will do next does not cause me to do what I will do next. However, this can be overcome with a simple revision or clarification of the argument.

  1. If God is omniscient, then he already knows what I will do next.
  2. If God already knows what I will do next, then there is already a fact about what I will do next.
  3. If there is already a fact about what I will do next, then I do not have free will.
  4. Therefore, if God is omniscient, then I do not have free will.

This revision illustrates clearly that the paradox does not depend on a causal connection between God’s knowledge and my next action, but only on the existence of a fact about what I will do next, which is a precondition of anyone’s knowing with certainty what I will do next.

Swinburne’s response to the paradox is more sophisticated. He responds by redefining omniscience as knowing everything that it is logically possible to know. On this view, God does not in fact know what we will do next, but this is only because it is not logically possible to know what an agent with free will will do next. Swinburne makes an exception for actions which the agent has overwhelming reason to perform, which he does think can be known ahead of time.

However, the problem with this account of omniscience is that it leaves God knowing little, if anything, due to the fact that he himself has free will on Swinburne’s view. God has no way of predicting with certainty whether he will decide whether to perform a miracle in the future, altering the course of history. The only way of responding to this that is consistent with Swinburne’s position is to say that God has overwhelming reason not to perform miracles, but as an orthodox Christian Swinburne cannot say that.

What do you think about the omniscience – free will paradox? Let me know in the comments!

Written by William

September 9, 2017 at 10:33 am

J. L. Schellenberg’s Ultimism

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J. L. Schellenberg is an atheistic philosopher who has advocated a kind of secular religion. The following is based on my imperfect recollection of his work from a couple of years ago and some cursory research.

Essentially, we are very young as a species from the perspective of deep time (think millions of years), so our best religious ideas might still be ahead of us. Based on that premise, “ultimists” would explore different contemporary conceptions of ultimate reality without committing to any of them.

Schellenberg does think he has good reasons to believe that there may be an ultimate reality which (a) everything that exists depends on, (b) is the greatest thing possible, and (c) benefits humanity when they act on the premise that it exists. These reasons are adaptations of the classic arguments for God’s existence, although he thinks the original versions fail, and his reformulations are very different from the originals. However, he believes that the problems of evil and divine hiddenness show that the Christian conception of God cannot exist, so that can’t be the ultimate reality he is in search of.

I would say Schellenberg is at least as interesting an author as many Christian authors writing today, so he’s worth reading if you have a serious interest in philosophy of religion.

Written by William

August 15, 2017 at 8:38 am

An Old Post on Why I Think Theism is Irrational

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Note: I posted this elsewhere a few years ago, and I’m posting it here to save it.

Consider the following argument.

  1. The belief that God exists needs to be supported by evidence to be rational.
  2. The belief that God exists is not supported by evidence.
  3. Therefore, the belief that God exists is not rational.

The conclusion follows deductively from the premises, so the question is whether the premises are true. Both premises of this argument are controversial in philosophy of religion.

Premise 1 is primarily denied by Reformed epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga. I have read a number of Plantinga’s books, and I don’t find his arguments convincing. However, Plantinga has gone through multiple phases in his intellectual development and it would take considerable space to address all of these phases convincingly. Instead, I’ll just list a couple of general considerations and let people ask questions.

First, the belief that God exists is not comparable to beliefs like belief in the external world or belief in other minds, because a sane, informed person can seriously deny that God exists and not that the external world or other minds exist. Even people who believe that the external world or other minds don’t exist have to assume that they do exist in order to put forward their arguments.

Second, we do have some evidence that the external world or other minds exist, even if this can’t be put in the form of a deductive argument for the conclusion that an external world and other minds exist. We observe the external world, and we see other people move in ways that suggest that they are conscious. Plantinga does claim that we have this sort of evidence for God’s existence as well through religious experience and the like, but it seems unlikely that religious experience could sufficiently ground a large scale cosmological hypothesis.

Premise 2 would require a lot of analysis to establish convincingly. What one would have to do would be to choose a dozen or so of the most prominent arguments for God’s existence, then analyze each of them in depth to show that they do not support the claim that God exists. However, this has been done by atheists like Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and Herman Philipse in his book God in the Age of Science?, and I cannot repeat their whole analysis here. Again, what I will do is offer up some general considerations and let people ask questions.

There are a number of versions of the problem of evil that cast doubt on any attempt to establish the God hypothesis. Here are a few examples.

  • The problem of animal suffering argues that God would not allow animals to suffer so horribly over the course of millions of years of evolution. We would expect a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God to avert these millions of years of suffering if at all possible, so the fact that we do observe that these millions of years of suffering have happened seems to count against the God hypothesis.
  • The problem of divine hiddenness argues that people who seek God honestly should always find him if God is loving and wants to establish a relationship with everyone, but they do not, so divine hiddenness seems to count against the God hypothesis. This has been developed in more detail by J. L. Schellenberg.
  • The problem of horrendous suffering argues that particularly horrific cases of suffering count against the existence of God. For example, suppose a man comes across a woman alone in the forest, cuts off her arms with an axe, rapes her, and leaves her to die. It seems like a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God would prevent this if we know anything at all about what is good or evil, but he does not, so horrific suffering seems to count against the God hypothesis.

Now, I recognize that these arguments may be objected to on the grounds that we cannot know for sure what God has good reasons to do or not do, since we are not omniscient like he is. I have two responses to this.

First, I am not offering these arguments from evil as attempts to disprove or provide evidence against the existence of God, but as attempts to provide observations that count against the God hypothesis in the sense of making the God hypothesis more difficult to establish. The real work here is being done by premise 1, which says that the believer needs to provide evidence for God, and these arguments from evil are really just attempts to make it harder for the believer to accomplish that.

Second, arguing that God might have reasons of which we are unaware for allowing apparently bad events creates a skepticism about whether we ever know what we have reason to do. If a man coming across a woman in the forest, cutting her arms off with an axe, raping her, and leaving her for dead can be overall a good thing, how can we say that we know that anything is ultimately good or bad?

So, I conclude that the belief that God exists is not rational on the basis of my initial argument. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments.

Written by William

August 14, 2017 at 1:35 pm

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