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B. Coherent?

1. Can There Be a Being with Only Formal and Negative Properties?

This being, says Hick, has no positive, nonformal properties of which we have a concept; the only positive properties it has are those of which we have no grasp. This is not clearly incoherent. We can’t just see, I think, that there couldn’t be a being like that; that is because we have a very slim grasp of those properties we don’t grasp. We just don’t know enough about them to know that it isn’t possible that there be a being like that. Of course, we also have no reason to think that there can be such a being: the fact that we can’t see that there can’t be a being like that is little or no reason for thinking we can see that there can be. (It is one thing to fail to see that something is impossible; it is quite another to see that it is possible.) In this case, so it seems, we don’t know enough to be able to tell whether it is possible that there be such a being. So suppose we provisionally concede, at least for purposes of argument, that it is possible that there be such a being.

But if there is such a being, how is it that we are able to refer to it, have some way of singling it out as a subject of predication? How can that be done? Not, to be sure, by way of the definite descriptions whereby Christians believe they can pick out God—such descriptions, say, as ‘the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the world’; such descriptions involve positive, nonformal properties of which we have a conception. Could we instead use the description: ‘the being that has no positive, substantial properties of which we have a grasp’? No; for if there is one such being, then maybe there are several more, none with any positive, nonformal properties we can grasp but differing from each other in positive, nonformal properties we can’t grasp. So we have no reason to think that that description will work either. (Of course once again we don’t know that it doesn’t work; for all we know or can tell, there is exactly one being with no positive nonformal properties of which we have a grasp.)

Now Hick’s idea, I think, is that those who practice the great religions really refer to this being (the Real, which has no positive nonformal properties of which we have a grasp) when (as it seems to them) they refer to God, Allah, Brahman, Shiva, Vishnu, the Dharmakaya, or whatever. So Christians think they refer to a being who is personal, 50loving, knowledgeable, and the like; the fact is, however, they do not refer to such a being, but to a being who doesn’t have any of these properties or, indeed, any other positive properties of which we have a grasp. Is this really possible? Is it possible that we refer to a being, thinking it has properties P1,. . .,Pn, when, in fact, it doesn’t have any of those properties or any other positive properties of which we have a conception? This too is not at any rate clearly impossible. It can certainly happen that we refer to a being when we are very much mistaken about the properties it has. I have never met you; in a letter, I tell you that I am a world-class tennis player and an athlete of enviable talents; the fact is that I am a complete duffer at tennis and at every similar activity. I go on to claim that I have a tenor voice to rival Pavarotti’s, have a Nobel prize in economics, am strikingly handsome, and write splendid poetry; all of this is whoppingly false. (In fact, I am unable even to appreciate any poetry above the level of William E. McGonagall, poet and tragedian,4646   See McGonagall’s Poetic Gems (Dundee: David Winter and Son; London: Gerald Duckworth, first published in two parts in 1890 and first published as one volume in 1934). See also his More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Yet More Poetic Gems, and Poetic Gems Once Again. know absolutely nothing about economics, can’t sing a note, and am very plain.) Then I have few of the properties you ascribe to me; still, you can refer to me.

Of course, there must be some kind of connection between us. You can’t pick me out as that handsome tenor-cum-poet-cum-economist who lives in (say) Jamestown, North Dakota; that description doesn’t apply to me.4747   But even this might be possible; if I have some other way of referring to you but also think that this description applies to you, then perhaps when I use that description, thinking it applies to you, I do, in fact, refer to you. Suppose God doesn’t have some of the properties we think he has: suppose, for example, he isn’t simple, in the classical sense, but composite, with a distinction to be made between him and his properties, between him and his existence, and so on. Even so, if a creed like the Belgic Confession refers to him as the spiritual, simple, creator of the universe, it still refers to him by that description, even if the description doesn’t apply. However you can refer to me as the one who wrote you a letter claiming to be all these things (supposing you received only one such letter). And perhaps something similar would be so for the Real. How is the reference supposed to go? Well, presumably Hick’s idea is that we can refer to the Real as the being that the practitioners of the great religions refer to when they think they are referring to beings with the properties ascribed to God, Allah, Brahman, Vishnu, and the like. Obviously, that just pushes the problem back a step: how do they refer to it? How does it happen that when Christians use the term ‘God’ they are, in fact, referring to this being that has no positive properties they grasp, despite the fact that 51they think they are referring to a being with a lot of positive properties of that sort? Again, there would have to be some connection between them and the Real. (It isn’t the case, of course, that the practitioners of Christianity, say, hypothesize that there is a being with no positive properties of which we have a grasp to whom they refer when they think they are referring to an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good creator of the universe; that would make no sense.) So how do they refer to this being? Well, presumably this could happen only if they had some kind of experiential contact with it, experienced this being in one way or another (whatever precisely it means to say that one being experiences another). They think they are in contact with a being with the properties ascribed to God; they are mistaken, however—not in thinking they are in contact with something, but in thinking the something with which they are in contact has the properties they ascribe to God.

Now perhaps this is possible: still, it does require a modification—and a significant modification—of Hick’s position. If this is the way the wind blows, then the Real enjoys at least one positive nonformal property of which we have a conception: the property being experienced by us. It stands in at least one positive nonformal relation of which we have a conception: the relation being experienced by. (So the ambiguity we noted above, pp. 44–45, must be resolved in favor of the alternative according to which we do experience the Real.) And that may lead to more, for what is involved in something’s being experienced by us or by the practitioners of the great religions? What is it for something to be experienced by us? Here there are several views. One is that the thing in question appears to us, in a way that defies further analysis. Another is that it causes us to be appeared to in a certain way, or causes some other kind of experience in us (and meets certain other conditions). What these have in common is at the least the idea that in order to experience the Real, we must be in causal contact with it, stand in a causal relation with it.

There is perhaps one alternative to be found in the history of philosophy: that would be the idea that we could experience something, perhaps in an analogically extended sense of ‘experience’, if there were a preestablished harmony between experiential states of ours and states of the thing in question.4848   Kant’s objection to this Leibnizian suggestion is that any such preestablished harmony would not be a cognitive relation; it couldn’t support our having knowledge of the things in question. But it is very difficult to see why that should be so. Suppose God brings it about that our cognitive states appropriately match those of the world around us, and suppose the other conditions for warrant are met (as outlined, e.g., in Warrant and Proper Function): why wouldn’t that be sufficient for our having knowledge of those things? But that, too, would involve the thing in question’s 52being in a causal relation to the thing or person (in Leibniz’s thought, God) who arranges the preestablished harmony. Here, too, therefore, a causal relation would be required between the thing experienced and something else, so that here, too, that thing stands in causal relations and (perhaps at one or more removes) in causal relations to the experiencing subject.

And this means that Hick or a Hickian (for perhaps we are going beyond Hick’s position here) must also ascribe another positive nonformal property to the Real: the property of being causally connected with us human beings. This is not a merely formal property, and it is also not a negative property. Still further, it may involve additional properties: whatever properties are necessarily connected with standing in a causal relation to human beings. The thing in question could not, for example, be like numbers and propositions are ordinarily thought to be: abstract objects that are incapable of standing in causal relations. So the being in question must have the property of being a concrete object, as opposed to an abstract object. The property of being a concrete object is also a nonformal property (many things lack it); as we shall see below, it isn’t easy to tell whether it is a positive or a negative property. And of course there may be still more properties necessarily connected with the property of standing in a causal relation with us human beings.

2. Positive versus Negative Properties

Should we perhaps say that this last property—being a concrete object—is really a negative property? Why can’t we think of the property being concrete as simply the complement of the property being abstract, with the latter positive and the former negative? Perhaps being concrete is really just not being abstract. But this leads to a real difficulty: why go that way? Can’t we just as well take the property being abstract as the property not being concrete, so that being concrete is the positive property and being abstract the negative? How do we determine which of the two properties really is positive, and which is really negative?

Indeed, are we guaranteed that this distinction between positive and negative properties really applies to properties at all? Is there really such a distinction for properties? Of course, there is a distinction between positive and negative predicates, linguistic items or phrases such as ‘is a horse’, ‘is not a cat,’ and the like. (Both ‘not being abstract’ and ‘not being concrete’ are negative predicates; both ‘is concrete’ and ‘is abstract’ are positive predicates.) But do we know that this distinction between positive and negative extends beyond predicates to properties? What makes a predicate (in English) negative is the presence in it of some negative particle, such as ‘not’ or ‘non’ or ‘un’ (as in ‘unlimited’) or ‘a’ (as in ‘asymmetrical’) or ‘dis’ or ‘anti’ (as in ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’). But properties presumably don’t contain particles or other bits of language. What would distinguish 53positive properties from negative properties? Is there really such a distinction?

This is not an easy question to answer. Can the Hickian perhaps claim that he really owes us no further answer? There is a distinction between positivity and negativity for properties, he says, and there is no way of getting behind this distinction, to say what it consists in, what it is that makes a property positive, or anything of that sort. This distinction is rock bottom and cannot be explained in terms of anything else. There are clear examples: wisdom is a positive property, and its complement, unwisdom (enjoyed both by those things capable of but lacking wisdom and by those not capable of it), is clearly a negative property; the distinction itself is ultimate and can’t be explained in other terms.

Well, maybe so, but can we say anything general about which properties are positive and which negative? Presumably the idea is that (1) every property is either positive or negative, (2) every property has a complement, (3) the complement of a property P has the opposite sense from P (that is, the complement of a positive property is negative and the complement of a negative property is positive), (4) a property equivalent4949   Where P is equivalent to Q if and only if it is necessary in the broadly logical sense that whatever exemplifies either P or Q exemplifies both P and Q. to a given property has the same sense as that property, and (5) the Real has no positive properties of which we have a conception. (We have already seen that there must be exceptions to this last principle, but let that pass.) Furthermore, (6) no negative property of which we have a conception entails5050   Where a property A entails a property B if (and only if) it is necessary that any object that has A also has B. a positive property of which we have a conception; else the Real would have those positive properties entailed by those negative properties of which we have a conception. What about conjunctive and disjunctive properties? A conjunctive property P & Q is negative if and only if both P and Q are negative. (If P & Q were negative and either P or Q were positive, the negative P & Q would entail a positive property, in which case the Real would have that positive property.) What about disjunctive properties? A disjunction P v Q of properties of which we have a conception could not be positive if either P or Q were negative: else the positive P v Q would be entailed by the negative P or the negative Q.

So far as I can see, there is nothing problematic about (1)—(6) at the level of logic alone. Indeed, note that we can give a ‘truth table’ (actually, a ‘positivity table’) for the complement of a property and for disjunction and conjunction among properties, and note further that the positivity table for conjunction is the truth table for disjunction and the positivity table for disjunction the truth table for conjunction. Mapping disjunction for properties onto conjunction for propositions, and conjunction for properties onto disjunction for propositions, we can help ourselves to some results from propositional logic and see that the logic of properties generated by (1)–(6) is consistent, complete, decidable, and so on.


Nevertheless, there still remains a problem with coherence. It appears, initially at least, that some nonformal positive properties are entailed by negative properties (given that there is such a distinction for properties). For example, according to Hick, the Real is both ultimate and infinite:

Unlimitedness, or infinity, is a negative concept, the denial of limitation. That this denial must be made of the Ultimate is a basic assumption of all the great traditions. It is a natural and reasonable assumption: for an ultimate that is limited in some mode would be limited by something other than itself; and this would entail its non-ultimacy. (237–38)

But what about this property of being ultimate? First, what is it to be ultimate? Well, at the least it is to be independent of all other beings, not depending on any other beings for existence or for intrinsic properties. And that sounds appropriately negative. Nevertheless, it entails the property of being self-sufficient; and that sounds positive. So it looks as if the negative property being independent of all others entails the positive property being self-sufficient. Of course, it is perhaps possible to bite the bullet and maintain that the property of being self-sufficient, contrary to appearances, is really negative. Well, perhaps we can live with that. But what about infinity?

According to Hick, the property of being unlimited, being infinite, is a negative property: it is the complement of the positive property of being limited or being finite. (Here is another case where it is far from obvious, initially, which of the pair in question is positive and which negative; let’s just concede for purposes of argument that being limited is a positive property.) Here we run into a real problem. What is this property of being unlimited? It is the negative property not being limited. Well, what is it to be limited? In the spatial analogue from which the notion is taken, it is to have limits or borders. A country that is unlimited, therefore, would have no borders and occupy all of space. (Again, having no borders sounds negative while occupying all of space sounds positive.)

Now of course the idea is not that the Real is spatially unlimited and occupies all of space. But then how does the analogy apply? In the spatial analogue, there are two features: an unlimited country is unlimited in a certain respect or along a certain dimension: space. It is also unlimited by any other country or space-occupying entity. In the same way, then, the Real, if it is unlimited, is unlimited along certain dimensions and is unlimited by any other being. Christians have traditionally thought of God as unlimited, infinite, in both these ways. To take the second first, God is unlimited by any other being: that is, he is unlimited in power or with respect to his being able to accomplish his will; no being can obstruct him, none can prevent him from doing what he wills. Clearly, this property, even if we think of it as negative, entails positive properties. If God is unlimited 55with respect to power, then he has power, which is certainly a positive property. If he is unlimited with respect to being able to accomplish his will, then he has the positive property of being able to accomplish his will. And if nothing can prevent him from doing what he wills, then he has the positive property of being able to do what he wills.

Being unlimited along certain dimensions or in certain important respects is similar. God is not unlimited in every respect: that could presumably be so only if he had every property to the maximal degree, which is impossible. If, for example, he has the property of being a spirit, then he does not also have the property of being a material object—a tree, for instance. Rather, the traditional idea has been that God has every great-making property to the maximal degree.5151   This idea is what drives the ontological argument; see my The Nature of Necessity, chapter 10. So God is unlimited with respect, for example, to knowledge. And a being that is not limited with respect to knowledge has the maximal degree of knowledge, is omniscient, all-knowing. Such a being, of course, would have the positive property being a knower.5252   Indeed, the being in question would have at least uncountably many such properties: for each proposition P, the being in question would have the property of knowing whether P is true. Here I assume that there are at least uncountably many distinct propositions. This seems relatively uncontroversial in view of the fact that for each distinct real number r, there is the distinct proposition r is not identical with the Taj Mahal.

Is there a way out of this difficulty for the Hickian? Perhaps. He might try saying that this being is ultimate and unlimited, all right, but only with respect to properties of which we have no grasp. With respect to all the properties of which we do have a grasp, it is indeed limited, limited in the limiting sense of not exemplifying the property at all. It has the complement of every property we have a grasp of; it has other properties we have no grasp of; and the way in which it is infinite is that it has to the maximal degree some properties of which we have no grasp.

Well, this sounds a little bizarre, but perhaps it avoids incoherence (and anyway, who promised us that reality would not be bizarre?). The idea is that there is a being that has no positive properties of which we have a conception, except for being involved in human experience and any properties that entails. This being is also unlimited in that it has to the maximal degree properties of which we have no conception.

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