Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Brownson's Traditionary Argument for God's Existence

I've been intending for a while -- actually at least a year and a half -- to discuss Orestes Brownson's infinite intelligible arguments for the existence of God. Infinite intelligible arguments are an often overlooked and thus under-studied kind of argument for God's existence, based on the idea that the intellect is capable of handling infinites of various kinds, and concluding that the some infinite intelligible must actually exist; very few people have done all that much work on the varieties and structures of such arguments, which is a particular problem given that there are a number of rather different flavors in getting from first step to conclusion. They are found in scattered forms prior to the early modern period -- Aquinas gives one, for instance -- but they became much more important due to the Cartesians, especially Malebranche, and enjoyed a sort of popularity in some circles in the nineteenth century, before fading out of memory almost completely. Part of the hold-up in doing some posts on the subject is that Brownson's early arguments, in his Unitarian phase, are based on Transcendentalist principles, whereas the later arguments, in his Catholic phase, are not, and indeed are generally linked to important criticisms of Transcendentalist thought. I hope I can get to something on them at some point this year.

But Brownson has other arguments, and his favored alternative is another kind of argument that is often overlooked and under-studied, despite having had a brief period of extraordinary popularity in the nineteenth century: traditionary arguments. As with infinite intelligible arguments, there are a number of very different kinds of traditionary arguments for the existence of God, and for a similar reason -- churches were very suspicious of them, which led those who were favorable to such arguments to rework them in different ways in the attempt to avoid the theological objections. Brownson's is a fairly straightforward causal argument, and is nicely developed in his April 1852 review of a book by Francis William Newman. The following is a first rough attempt to lay out the essential argument.

1. The intelligible, simply in itself, is not known by the senses.
2. Nonetheless, we human beings do not have pure immediate intuition of the intelligible to form a belief, but require some sensible representation by signs in a language.
3. The existence of God, if true, is a purely intelligible truth.
4. There are people who believe that God exists.
5. To believe that God exists requires that this be sensibly represented to us by signs in a language. (from 1, 2, and 3)
6. This sensible representation cannot be from oneself, but must be from someone else (a teacher).
7. If someone else represents it to us, they must either have had immediate nonsensible intuition of it (and thus by (2) not be human) or have had it sensibly represented to them by a teacher.
8. Therefore there is either a first teacher from whom human beings receive the means for believing the existence of God, or there must be an infinite series of teachers.
9. It is absurd to conclude that language for articulating the idea of God's existence has come to us through an infinite series of teachers.
10. Therefore there is a first teacher of God's existence to human beings, who had an immediate and purely intelligible intuition of God's existence.
11. This we call God.

The argument in its basic form is thus an argument that because people believe that God exists, God exists. But this is not because of a general property of belief, but a question of how human beings could possibly form any notion of divine existence to believe or not in the first place. Any answer to such a question has to involve language, but language is something human beings receive from teachers. There are a number of different ways one could go to get from here to God, but Brownson sets his up very deliberately as a cosmological argument. (He is beginning with Lamennais, the usual nineteenth-century source for traditionary arguments for God's existence, and the reason the argument focuses on language, but he is explicitly modifying Lamennais's argument in order to make the argument much more robust. While it's not quite so obvious in the original as I've represented it above, it seems pretty clear that he is modifying his traditionary argument on Aquinas, probably the First Way in particular.) The obvious opposing position would be to hold that the language required simply grew up gradually among human beings -- but, of course, this is more radical than it appears, since it requires a rejection of (2) -- if we developed the relevant language, which is just (in this context) sensible signs expressing concepts, it must be possible for us to get the concept from a source other than someone teaching us the language that already expresses that concept. An account would be needed of how this happens, and thus why (2) should be regarded as wrong.

In any case, the argument obviously has the same structure with causal arguments involving infinite regress, like the First Way. It also has an interesting complementary relationship with infinite intelligible arguments, which no doubt explains why Brownson puts them together. If one thinks of actual belief as intellectual reflection involving sensible signs, the infinite intelligible argument focuses on the former (intellectual reflection), while the traditionary argument focuses on the latter (sensible signs), and in both cases the claim is that this particular belief, that God exists, could not arise in us if God did not, in fact, exist. Brownson's own brief discussion of the relation between the two is somewhat unclear, in part because he is trying to avoid assimilation to Lamennais's condemned argument, and thus needs further study. The simplest way to read him seems to be that he takes proofs to be of different kinds -- the traditionary argument proves its conclusion, but does not do so in the highest way, which the infinite intelligible argument does. But, again, this needs further study.

It's a much more complicated question, to which I do not currently have any answer, as to how the traditionary argument relates to other theistic arguments that depend on language, but in which language is understood somewhat differently -- such as Berkeley's visual language argument or Augustine's interior Teacher argument. A full discussion would certainly require looking at this.

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