Philosophy Word of the Day — Omnipotence

“Omnipotence is maximal power.  Some philosophers, notably Descartes, have thought that omnipotence requires the ability to do absolutely anything, including the logically impossible.  Most classical theists, however, understood omnipotence as involving vast powers, while nevertheless being subject to a range of limitations of ability, including the inability to do what is logically impossible, the inability to change the past or to do things incompatible with what has happened, and the inability to do things that cannot be done by a being who has other divine attributes, e.g., to sin or to lie.”

— Edward R. Wierenga, “Divine Attributes,” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 240.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Accident

“A feature or property of a substance (e.g., an organism or artifact) without which the substance could still exist.  According to a common essentialist view of persons, Socrates’ size, color, and integrity are among his accidents, while his humanity is not.  For Descartes, thinking is the essence of the soul, while any particular thought a soul entertains is an accident.  According to a common theology, God has no accidents, since all truths about him flow by necessity of his nature. . . . Issues about accidents have become peripheral in this century because of the decline of traditional concerns about substance.  But the more general questions about necessity and contingency are very much alive.”

– Steven J. Wagner, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 5.

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What Theology Has Done for Science

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Most scientific naturalists are unaware that modern science was incubated in and born out of a Judeo-Christian worldview.  Denis Alexander lists four theological themes that were indispensible to the rise of modern science, and historian Humphrey Clarke gives insightful commentary.  The first two:

1. The Concept of Scientific Laws

Alexander writes:
‘there seems little doubt that the concept of scientific laws was nurtured by the Christian belief that God has established moral laws for the universe and therefore, ipso facto, God must maintain similar laws that govern the physical world. The rational God of Christian theology provided a rationale for seeking intelligibility in the world, as expressed through laws. This is made explicit in the writings of early natural philosophers such as Descartes, Boyle and Newton.

I wrote something similar a while back, based on the Faraday Lecture series (which are a fantastic resource).

2. The Contingency of God’s Actions

A second theme that we often find in the early natural philosophers is the idea that the contingency of God’s actions encourages an empirical attitude towards the natural world. The God of the Bible can do what he likes, and it is up to natural philosophers to determine this empirically; it cannot be worked out from first principles as the Greek rationalists mistakenly thought. Contingency stems from the free will of the omnipotent Creator. (Continue)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Voltaire (1694–1778)

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François-Marie d’Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his pen name Voltaire, was a French writer and public activist who played a singular role in defining the eighteenth-century movement called the Enlightenment. At the center of his work was a new conception of philosophy and the philosopher that in several crucial respects influenced the modern concept of each. Yet in other ways Voltaire was not a philosopher at all in the modern sense of the term. He wrote as many plays, stories, and poems as patently philosophical tracts, and he in fact directed many of his critical writings against the philosophical pretensions of recognized philosophers such as Leibniz, Malebranche, and Descartes.

He was, however, a vigorous defender of a conception of natural science that served in his mind as the antidote to vain and fruitless philosophical investigation. In clarifying this new distinction between science and philosophy, and especially in fighting vigorously for it in public campaigns directed against the perceived enemies of fanaticism and superstition, Voltaire pointed modern philosophy down several paths that it subsequently followed.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

“If God did not exist, He would have to be invented.” But all nature cries aloud that he does exist: that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it.

  • Voltaire quoting himself in his Letter to Prince Frederick William of Prussia (177011-28), translated by S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire in His Letters, 1919.

Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.

(Via Wikiquote)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – George Berkeley (1695-1753)

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George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, was one of the great philosophers of the early modern period. He was a brilliant critic of his predecessors, particularly Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke. He was a talented metaphysician famous for defending idealism, that is, the view that reality consists exclusively of minds and their ideas. Berkeley’s system, while it strikes many as counter-intuitive, is strong and flexible enough to counter most objections. His most-studied works, the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (Principles, for short) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (Dialogues), are beautifully written and dense with the sort of arguments that delight contemporary philosophers.

He was also a wide-ranging thinker with interests in religion (which were fundamental to his philosophical motivations), the psychology of vision, mathematics, physics, morals, economics, and medicine. Although many of Berkeley’s first readers greeted him with incomprehension, he influenced both Hume and Kant, and is much read (if little followed) in our own day.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Private Language Argument

The idea of a private language was made famous in philosophy by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in §243 of his book Philosophical Investigations explained it thus: “The words of this language are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.”[1] This is not intended to cover (easily imaginable) cases of recording one’s experiences in a personal code, for such a code, however obscure in fact, could in principle be deciphered. What Wittgenstein had in mind is a language conceived as necessarily comprehensible only to its single originator because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others.

Immediately after introducing the idea, Wittgenstein goes on to argue that there cannot be such a language. The importance of drawing philosophers’ attention to a largely unheard-of notion and then arguing that it is unrealizable lies in the fact that an unformulated reliance on the possibility of a private language is arguably essential to mainstream epistemology, philosophy of mind and metaphysics from Descartes to versions of the representational theory of mind which became prominent in late twentieth century cognitive science.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Rationalism

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Reliance on reason {Lat. ratio} as the only reliable source of human knowledge. In the most general application, rationalism offers a naturalistic alternative to appeals to religious accounts of human nature and conduct.

More specifically, rationalism is the epistemological theory that significant knowledge of the world can best be achieved by a priori means; it therefore stands in contrast to empiricism. Prominent rationalists of the modern period include Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz.

(Via Philosophical Dictionary)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Basic Belief

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Under the epistemological view called foundationalism, basic beliefs (also commonly called foundational beliefs) are the axioms of a belief system.

Foundationalism holds that all beliefs must be justified in order to be believed. Beliefs therefore fall into two categories:

  • Beliefs which are properly basic, in that they do not depend for their justification on other beliefs, but on something outside the realm of belief (a “non-doxastic justification”);
  • Beliefs which are derivative of one or more basic beliefs, and therefore depend on the basic beliefs for their validity;

Within this basic framework of foundationalism, there are a number of views regarding which types of beliefs qualify as properly basic; that is, what sorts of beliefs can be justifiably held without the justification of other beliefs.

  • In classical foundationalism, beliefs are held to be properly basic if they are either self-evident axiom, or evident to the senses (empiricism).[1] However Anthony Kenny and others have argued that this is a self-refuting idea.[2]
  • In modern foundationalism, beliefs are held to be properly basic if they were either self-evident axiom or incorrigible.[3] One such axiom is René Descartes’s axiom, Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). Incorrigible (lit. uncorrectable) beliefs are those which one can believe without possibly being wrong. Notably, the evidence of the senses is not seen as properly basic because, Descartes argued, all our sensory experience could be an illusion.
  • In what Keith Lehrer has called “fallible foundationalism”,[4] also known as “moderate foundationalism”, the division between inferential and non-inferential belief is retained, but the requirement of incorrigibility is dropped. This, it is claimed, allows the senses to resume their traditional role as the basis of non-inferential belief despite their fallibility.[5]
  • In Reformed epistemology, beliefs are held to be properly basic if they are reasonable and consistent with a sensible world view. This rather broad criterion can include faith in our senses, faith in our memory, and faith in God.

(Via Wikipedia)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Incorrigible

Directly and conclusively verified, not subject to any further tests.  A class of so-called basic statements or propositions that are descriptive of present contents of experience (for example, “I have a headache”) are generally regarded as incorrigible in so far as they express nothing about which one could be uncertain or mistaken.

Such statements may, however, be false, even when the claim is sincere, not because experience itself can be in any way fallible but because it might be misidentified or incorrectly formulated in words.

(from A Dictionary of Philosophy, Rev. 2nd ed., ed. Antony Flew, 166-167)

Another common example of an incorrigible belief is Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Epiphenomenalism

In philosophy of mind, epiphenomenalism, also known as ‘Type-E Dualism‘ is a view according to which some or all mental states are mere epiphenomena (side-effects or by-products) of physical states of the world.

Thus, epiphenomenalism denies that the mind (as in its states, not its processing) has any influence on the body or any other part of the physical world: while mental states are caused by physical states, mental states do not have any influence on physical states.

Some versions of epiphenomenalism claim that all mental states are inert, while others claim that only some mental states are inert. The latter version often claims that only those types of mental states that are especially difficult to account for scientifically are epiphenomenal, such as qualitative mental states (e.g., the sensation of pain).

(Via Wikipedia)

Many Christian theists, on the other hand, insist that mental states are grounded in the soul, which stands in a two-way causal relationship with the body:  the soul can influence the body, and the body can influence the soul.  This position is also known as substance dualism.


René Descartes‘s illustration of dualism. Inputs are passed on by the sensory organs to the epiphysis in the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit.

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