The APJ is pleased to devote the week of 14 -21 June to a discussion of Tyron Goldschmidt’s 2015 paper “Commanding Belief” (Ratio 27 (2):163-174), which was the winner of the APJ’s 2013 Essay Prize Competition. The publisher (Wiley) has kindly offered free access to Tyron’s paper via this link until the end of this month. Symposium participants include Max Baker-Hytch (Oxford) and Christian Miller (Wake Forest).
This essay shows three things: first, that we cannot comply with a command from God to believe in God; second, that God cannot command us to believe in God; and, third, that the divine command theory is false. The third conclusion follows from the second, and the second follows from the first. The essay focuses on an argument from the medieval Jewish philosopher, Hasdai Crescas. It also draws from, and is something of a sequel to, an argument from Brown and Nagasawa published previously in this journal.
For Max’s comments, please click here
For Christian’s comments, please click here
For Tyron’s replies, please click here
Please feel free to join the discussion.
Dr. Goldschmidt has written an interesting and thought-provoking paper. I thank him for sharing it with us.
It’s not always clear to me when he’s making his own arguments and when he’s explaining Crescas, so I apologize in advance for any mis-attributions.
Section 4 (We cannot comply with God’s command to believe in God)
Goldschmidt and Crescas puzzle over the apparent infinite regress or vicious circle involved in the command to believe in God. The basic argument seems to be this:
1. A person would not recognize the command to believe in God as a valid command unless he or she already believed in God.
2. The prior belief must also comply with the command to believe in God.
3. But the prior belief cannot comply with the command without reference to the command, which involves us in a vicious circle.
Goldschmidt’s argument rests on his insistence that a prior belief in God must also be in fulfillment of God’s commandment, but there is no reason to suppose that is the case.
It is certainly possible to believe in God as a matter of fact rather than a matter of obligation — perhaps, as Orthodox Judaism says, you experienced the Divine presence at Sinai and you know He exists on the basis of that experience.
If, having established His existence, God says that it’s also morally and religiously obligatory to believe in Him, then you know that the command is valid. You know it’s valid not because of the command itself, but because of your prior belief. Your prior belief rests not on a moral obligation from the command but on either (1) your experience of the Divine presence, or (2) your belief in the testimony of someone else who says that he or she experienced the Divine presence.
Therefore, it is mistaken to believe that a commandment to believe in God necessitates either an infinite regress or a vicious circle.
Section 6 (the compliance principle)
The compliance-principle argument in section 6 doesn’t work because it rests on a superficial understanding of belief. Maimonides made the same error, so Goldschmidt is in good company.
The basic argument is the same as the argument against any ethics of belief: (1) We cannot by an act of will choose to believe anything or disbelieve it. (2) If we have a duty to do X, then we are able to do X. (3) Therefore, we cannot have a duty to believe or disbelieve anything.
Brand Blanshard addressed this issue in his book Reason and Belief. He locates our ethical duties about belief in two actions that we can control: First, to acquire the relevant evidence to assess the beliefs; and second, to form careful and logical habits of mind that make our involuntary acts of belief reliable (pp. 402ff).
The religious counterpart of Blanshard’s argument is that we can control our daily acts of prayer and devotion, as well as refrain from unwholesome activities, and thereby prepare our minds to hold the commanded beliefs. As a result, we do have at least some control over our beliefs, and duties of belief are possible.
However, there is a more significant problem: Crescas, like Maimonides and many others, holds a naive mental-act view of belief that is untenable. Though belief involves mental states, those states are ineffable. We can describe their relationships but not their content. Moreover, we use public language to talk about beliefs, and it has no apparatus to talk about private mental states. When we talk about holding beliefs, we are talking about behavior, not mental states — not even our own mental states.
If I may “self-plagiarize” from my forthcoming book Belief, Truth, and Torah:
“At the yeshiva, your teacher is instructing you about basic Jewish beliefs. He says you must believe that:
God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai.
Can you believe it? Yes you can, but there are some problems.
First, according to Jewish sages such as Maimonides, we can’t understand God, so we don’t mentally understand the meaning of the word ‘God’. We also can’t understand what normal words mean when we apply them to God, so we can’t understand what ‘gave’ means in that belief. What we mentally understand is essentially Blank blank the Torah to Moses at Sinai. (We’ll talk more about meaning in a later chapter.)
As for the rest — the Torah, Moses, and Sinai — it’s all good. The Torah consists of five books, Moses was a man, and Sinai is a mountain. We’ve seen books, men, and mountains. As long as we don’t insist on historical or archaeological evidence, we can believe that part. The Torah says it happened, and that’s good enough for us.
You always state the belief in appropriate situations. You never deny it. And you act consistently with it. But in your own private thoughts, do you really believe what you’re supposed to believe?
Do you really believe it, or are you just acting like you do?
How would anyone else know?
For that matter, how would you know?
That is the real problem. If believing something requires a specific thing to happen in your mind, then how can you know if it’s the correct thing?
Your teacher told you to believe that ‘God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai’, and you think your belief is correct if it’s the same as what the teacher believes. You’re right about that, but wrong about what it means.
You can observe what your teacher says and how he acts, but not what’s in his mind. It is impossible for you to know what you’re supposed to believe ‘mentally’. The teacher can’t communicate that to you at all. He can only tell you the words and show you the behavior. If you faithfully recite the words and consistently exhibit the behavior, then you believe. If your words and behavior match those of the teacher, then so does your belief.
Modal logic gives us this principle:
Whatever is actual is possible (p →Mp).
Belief cannot require that you do something impossible, because people in fact do believe things. If people believe things, then belief is actual. If belief is actual, then belief is possible. So belief cannot require that you know other people’s private mental states. That’s impossible.
Every person who believes ‘God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai’ might have a different mental experience of what it means, and none of them would ever know. And it wouldn’t matter.
When nobody can know even in principle if their mental belief is correct or not, then the word ‘correct’ loses its meaning. Whatever your mental belief is, it’s correct as long as you say the right things and exhibit the right behavior. Even if you examine your own mental states and find that they are correct, you have no independent check on your judgment that they are correct. As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed:
Whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here, we can’t talk about ‘right’.
Your mental state must exist, or else you’re not conscious. To have a corresponding mental state is a necessary condition for having a belief: otherwise, you can’t believe anything. But the specific content of your mental state drops out. If you say and act, then you believe.”
Dear Noah Palmer,
Thank you for devoting so much thought to my paper.
I offset both quotes and my argument reconstructions. In any case, the ones with footnotes are quotes, while the ones without footnotes are my reconstructions.
Your objection against Section 4 is that I mistakenly assume that the prior belief in God would also have to comply with God’s command.
I reply that on the “vicious circle” reading of the argument the trouble is that the belief in God would have to conform with the command for the reason that you believe God commanded it, while you could only believe God commanded it if you already believe in God. So your belief would have to be at once logically prior to and subsequent to the command.
As I understand your objection, it essentially takes up the “infinite regress” reading of the argument. I do not think that reading of the argument would work, for reasons that might come to your own reasons (see the longest paragraph on p. 168). However, I prefer the circularity reading—both in itself and as an interpretation of Crescas, for the reasons given in the longest paragraphs of p. 167 and 168.
Your objection against Section 6 is that the compliance principle cannot apply to beliefs, because we cannot directly control our beliefs. I think that this argument is the same as a separate argument from Crescas (see the Fisher ed. pp. 9-10), which was beyond the scope of my paper.
As for the rest of your response, I disagree with your views about the nature of psychological states, and about what can be said about God too. But this takes us too far afield.
Don’t Stop Believin’
If we are to read Exodus 20:2 as the first commandment of the Decalogue, it seems to me that its immediate context as well as the larger narrative context of Exodus would make its likeliest interpretation somewhat different from the way Tyron Goldschmidt and several medieval Jewish commentators construe it. The entire verse reads, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The main claim being made here is the self-identification (using the personal name of God) of the being who brought Israel out of Egypt with a series of miracles, and one natural implicit command here seems to be that they should not attribute to any other god these actions that enabled Israel to be free as an independent nation. Read this way, the verse that follows it naturally expands on this implicit command: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
An additional command may be implicit in v.2, somewhat closer to Goldschmidt’s interpretation, but not liable to infinite regress or circularity problems. Taking a somewhat similar vein as Noah Palmer’s view, in the narrative context of the Decalogue, the Jews at Sinai already believed in God because of their experiences at Sinai, or perhaps earlier, because they witnessed the miraculous interventions of God on their behalf in the plagues and the parting of the sea. So the second command implicit in v.2 is not to begin believing in God from a state of agnosticism or atheism, but to continue believing in God as those who already believe. In other words, it is a command to not stop believing in God. This concern is revisited in Deuteronomy 8 (and elsewhere), where Israel is warned not to forget the Lord when they enter the Promised Land and are satisfied with their wealth, since it is God who made it all possible for them. This command to continue believing in God would only apply to those who already believe and have had vivid experiences of God that would make their slipping into disbelief epistemically vicious at best and ungrateful and morally blameworthy at worst.
Dear Isaac Choi,
Thank you for your comments. I agree with them. Though the paper isn’t really about proper biblical interpretation, I never meant that the command should be taken to be about belief in God. Crescas doesn’t either. Indeed, because of the problem he takes the command to begin at the following verse. But that is too quick, since the first verse might be another command: not about mere belief in God, but e.g. about belief that God has done such-and-such or that we should continue to believe in God. Such commands do not face the original problem. See the longest paragraph on my p. 165.
Thanks, Ty, for a very thought-provoking paper. I have three thoughts (well, friendly objections!)…
First objection: This is a strengthening of an objection along the lines of that offered by Max. You say that when we comply to God’s command to believe in God, “we are conforming [to it] because we believe God issued the command.” This seems to me to be far too strong a principle. Consider the following story (similar to, but stronger than, Max’s): I drive into town one evening, to do some shopping. I park my car and get out. Just as I start making my way down the road away from the car, I think that I hear the following from behind me: ‘Hey, you’re not allowed to park there!’. I am unsure whether I’m just imagining things, just being paranoid. I turn around to check if there’s anyone there, but I don’t see anyone. But, since I’m a nervous type, and I have very little money to spare for paying parking fines, and I’ve always been rather afraid of breaking any laws or ordinances, I decide to comply with the (possible) command: I get back in the car and move it to a different spot. I go do my shopping and return to my car later in the evening. A parking policeman happens to be there when I get back, and says to me: ‘Oh, you were the guy I shouted to earlier. It’s a good thing you moved your car, as I gave out a whole load of fines in that area earlier this-evening!’. I might reply: ‘Yes, it’s a good thing I listened to what you told me too – especially as, at the time, I wasn’t even sure whether anyone had said anything, or indeed, whether there had been anyone there at all!’ – In other words, I might be glad to have complied with the parking policemen’s command – despite not having believed in the existence of the policemen, or that there had been a command – and indeed: despite not even thinking that it was probable that there was a policeman or a command. Rather, I complied with the (possible) command simply *on the off chance* that it was an actual command.
This seems to me to be a perfectly believable story. And it avoids your second way of responding to Max, in your reply. Namely, your suggestion that there might be no level of confidence which is higher than half but less than belief. For in my story, I grant that my level of confidence is less than half – and yet I can still comply with the command.
Moreover, one cannot escape the story’s consequences by stipulating that ‘compliance’ involves belief (as you moot in your first response in your reply). For that does not give us compliance (the concept referred to by the ordinary English word ‘compliance’), rather, it gives us Tyronian compliance. But Tyronian compliance is not relevant to the question of whether it is possible to comply to the command to believe in God’s existence.
Second objection: This is based on the fact that a command to believe in God’s existence is not the same as a command to *come to* belief in God’s existence. You seem to have concentrated almost solely on the latter. I could, for the sake of argument, grant that I cannot come to belief in God – i.e. take on a belief in God – in compliance with God’s command to believe in him. However, even granting that, I may be able to *continue* believing in God in compliance with the command. For example, believing in God, and believing that he has commanded me to believe in him, I may avoid reading things which I fear will tempt me to give up my belief, or the like. If I avoided reading such material because of God’s command to believe in him, I would be – at least in part – *continuing to* believe in God in compliance with his command to do so. Or, imagine that I used to be very certain in my belief, but now it has become a little more shaky. I have seen things, read things, and thought things that have led my belief in God to weaken. I may have come to a point at which I need to decide whether to just throw in the towel or not: capitulate to the undermining thoughts and evidence. But then I recall that God commands us to believe in him – and that wins the day for belief, at least for now. Again, I would say that this person’s continued belief in God is a way of complying with the command to believe… Thus, even if it would involve a vicious circle to come to believe in God due to God’s command, there is no such circle involved in retaining one’s belief due to the command. (Of course, there may be objections surrounding the question of doxastic voluntarism, but we are ignoring those here).
Third objection: This regards your claim that it would be pointless for God to command something that we could not complied with. In your argument for this claim you reason: “If a command can serve a purpose, then it can make a difference to what we do. If it can make a difference to what we do, then we can conform with the command because we believe it is a command, i.e. we can comply with the command.” I’m not sure that this is true. After all, couldn’t a command with which it is impossible to comply make a difference to our lives even without our compliance with it? For example, might not such a command humble us? If I get it into my head that I am really wonderful – that I fulfil all my duties, and even do so in a supererogatory manner – then this command might comes to remind me that no, I am not perfect, there are duties which I have not fulfilled… It reminds me of my finitude and imperfection: there are duties which I necessarily cannot fulfil. Indeed, there may be many such commands, which are at least unfillable-in-their-entirety in principle (say, if they have no limit). (Of course, this will not apply if one thinks that ought implies can, but then it turns out that your conclusion in section 5 might need to assume that principle as a premise). I do not think that this is an entirely frivolous idea, for it seems to me that having commands that cannot be fulfilled – ideals that cannot be reached – might play an important role in a theodicy…
Once again, thanks for the very interesting and thought-provoking paper!
Thank you for a fascinating paper.
I want to propose a rather controversial (dis)solution to the problem. My solution relies, in part, on empirical claims that I cannot substantiate. If I am correct, the problem identified by Crescas dissolves since it incorrectly attributes to Maimonides a position he did not hold. I will say nothing about Nahmanides’ view.
My claims are as follows:
1. In the correct text of the Mishneh Torah we are commanded to know that God exists.
2. Crescas had the incorrect text of Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot or Mishneh Torah.
3. There is no troublesome circularity involved when the commandment is read accordingly.
Now to substantiate the claims.
Kapach’s text has the “knows” version (girsa) whereas other texts have the “belief” girsa. I’m not sure which girsa the Bodleian text contains. The commandment is thus the command to know that God exists.
If one considers Maimonides epistemology, then it is more likely that the “knows” girsa is correct because Maimonides had very little interest in belief compared to scientific knowledge, which he considered the means by which the human mind is perfected and immortality achieved. If one looks closely at how he words the first chapter of Yesodei HaTorah, he is getting at some of the kinds of premises one would need to scientifically know that God exists. Besides, later in that chapter he expressly says that knowledge of God’s existence is a positive commandment. And his source text is the first of the Ten Commandments.
I cannot get into either of this very large topics which are relevant to the present discussion: (i) the relationship between Maimonides’ philosophical commitments in the Mishneh Torah and in the Guide of the Perplexed, or (ii) the nature of Maimonides’ epistemic commitments (i.e. whether or not he was a skeptic about metaphysical knowledge).
I cannot substantiate this claim. The only reason I have for thinking Crescas had the wrong girsa is the fact that he writes as if Maimonides thought the commandment was to believe in the existence of God.
Building a demonstrative proof for the existence of God that yields scientific knowledge of that conclusion can be achieved without circularity. We first believe that God exists. Then God commands us to achieve scientific knowledge of His existence, which is the only kind of doxastic state worth its salt. We accept the commandment as binding and then go about the business of building the requisite argument.
Thank you for your comments. I’m afraid I don’t see the difference between your first two criticisms and the criticisms given by Baker-Hytch and others above, so I cannot give more of a reply to those.
As for your third criticism, I doubt Crescas would allow that God could command something that cannot be fulfilled; it seems religiously (e.g. Deut. 30:12) and morally problematic. Also see the paragraph immediately after I state the argument on p. 169.
I am interested in how you think that the idea can play a role in a theodicy.
Thanks for the responses, Ty! –
Re. the first objection: It was indeed very similar to Max’s – just a little stronger, as it tried to show that we could comply with a command without even believing it to be *likely* that the commander exists.
Re. the second objection: I hadn’t noticed that Isaac Choi had said pretty much the same thing at the end of his comment. Apologies for the overkill!
And re. the third objection: It doesn’t seem to me immediately morally problematic that we have obligations that we can’t fulfill. I think it happens a lot, e.g. with obligations that come with no upper limit, and with various forms of moral dilemma, etc. But I haven’t given these things enough thought… As to the role that such obligations can play in a theodicy: if there are obligations that necessarily cannot be fulfilled, then everyone necessarily has a certain degree of guilt – it would be a form of original sin, if you like. And it seems to me that this could play an explanatory role of some sort in a theodicy, if you were that way inclined!
GC, I think the idea of a command that cannot be fulfilled is difficult, but the idea of an obligation that cannot be fulfilled is even more difficult. Ought implies can. You apparently reject this maxim. However, I think I now understand how you might make use of this idea in a theodicy.
You know I admire you greatly, and love this paper in particular, but I think your answer to GC here is a cop-out! 🙂
Ought implies can if you’re Kant. But who says Kant’s right. For instance, if you look at the debate surrounding conflicting halakhic obligations, the position that says ‘d’chuya’ instead of ‘hutra’ is precisely the position that pursuing the higher halakhic obligation still comes at a halakhic cost. It’s as if you can’t always act in such a way as to be 100% in the right. It’s as if sometimes, the choice is between an action that is 51% moral and 49% immoral, or an act that is 51% immoral and only 49% moral.
See tractate Taanit 11 – I can’t remember if it’s a or b.
The idea there is that you should fast on Shabbat in certain extraordinary situations, but that you should also fast during the week as an atonement for having fasted on Shabbat!
The midrashim are full of these sorts of ideas.
See also the Chavat Yair, shut 236. He argues there that even though you have to break shabbat in order to save a life, the fact that you had to break shabbat isn’t negligible, he even advises private repentance (not public because he doesn’t want to confuse the public into thinking that breaking shabbat to save a life is wrong!!).
My point? Many important voices in the Jewish tradition are committed to the idea that the moral universe in complicated and that it isn’t always possible to fulfill all of our obligations.
And thus GC’s point really has some bite.
I think the weight of the tradition almost compels a Jewish thinker to give more of a response than ‘ought implies can’.
It’s not the gemora in taanit 11, but the Tosfot there. Sorry!
Thanks for your kind comments and for the objection.
I’ll stick with “ought implies can”. This is extremely plausible, even if Kant agrees with it. So we should at least try to find some way of interpreting apparent evidence to the contrary so that it is not in fact to the contrary.
You might e.g. try to interpret the repentance as not for saving the life or desecrating the sabbath per se, but for being put in that position, e.g. perhaps for some other past wrong.
I don’t know if this interpretation will work in this case. But unless and until there is enough reason for thinking that contrary evidence cannot be explained away, we should stick with the very intrinsically plausible “ought implies can”.
How about this compromise position – as it seems that we have different conceptions as to what’s plausible.
Let’s accept that, strictly speaking, ‘ought’ implies can. But, that there’s a loose sense of ‘ought’ too.
Let’s imagine that besides real obligations, there are these things called ethical ideals.
Ethical ideals are often such that they cannot be completely realised in our lives, but are such that we ought to strive to embody them.
Of course, it cannot be that we ought to embody them, because ought implies can, and these often can’t be embodied.
But, we can have an obligation to strive towards embodying them.
Perhaps we can then have a loose sense of ‘ought’. When we say that somebody ought to embody an ethical ideal, perhaps we really mean, they ought to try to do it.
Perhaps some of the commandments are like this.
Especially given the Rabbinic data I pointed to, which seems to indicate, at the very least, that not all halakhic or ethical ideals are realisable.
And thus, perhaps ‘You ought to believe in God’ should receive a loose reading of ‘ought’, and thus it becomes ‘You ought to strive to believe in God’.
Maybe it was that that GC was gunning for.
Either way, I’m not really sold on the initial plausibility of ‘ought implies can’, but I tried to word this reply without bringing that principle into contention (and thus I granted it to you for the sake of argument).
You might worry about what it means to strive towards an unrealisable goal, but this is what political theorists do when they engage in ideal rather than non-ideal theory. They allow a utopic goal to guide, or somehow calibrate, policy even in a non-ideal world.
Thank you very much for these details. I agree entirely with your points. What they show is that Crescas’s argument does not apply against Maimonides, but they do not show that Crescas’s argument is unsound. Yours might be another for the alternative interpretations suggested at the end of the long paragraph on page 165.
As a gentile Christian I may not have the background to properly understand the intricacies of the argument, if so, please disregard the following arguments.
I hold the Word of God as a revelation of who He is and the hermeneutical exegesis of the text is primary in coming-to-know the meaning. My problem with the paper and a large part of the discussion is an assumption that the statement of God’s being is taken as an implicit command to believe based on a majority opinion. I would prefer a textual analysis that demonstrates that proposition.
It seems to me that God is using a personal, relational justification for the following commands as opposed to this being the first command. Leviticus 11:44 would be a case in point – the justification to be holy is not Divine Command “Be ye holy because I said so.” It is not pragmatic: “Do holy things because I said so.” It is not utilitarian “Be holy because it will make you happy.” It is not cultural relativism “Be holy because society thinks you should.” It is Virtue Ethics based on the Being of God – His nature “Be holy because I am holy.” As I read the text, over and over God uses the same justification of revelation – be, think, do because I am God.
That rationality enables me to move from Divine Command to Virtue Ethics and still have God able to give commands based on his nature. Personally, I agree that Divine Command is not the best manner to approach the text, but I get there from thinking the revelation of the being of God in relationship is the meaning of the text in question.
Thanks for your comment.
The essay isn’t really about the proper interpretation of the biblical text; it’s just about a certain medieval philosophical puzzle. However, not all Jewish commentators take the first of the ten commandments to begin at that verse or to be a command for belief in God (as opposed to a command to believe e.g. something more particular about God). I think there are differences between Christian denominations too about where the first commandment begins and what it is.
Thank you, Ty, for the response, but I am still not understanding. I find the discussion fascinating and stimulating but am now even more confused.
The biblical text is referenced in the paper as a justification for why the problem is “interesting” enough to address and the rejection of the logic is strong enough to reject Divine Command Theory in general, and that would seem to need a very strong logical link to the biblical text. If the paper is rejecting the specific interpretation of this text in particular then I have not read the paper closely enough. It seems that once the paper jumps to the interpretation it never goes back to the particular biblical text.
Without the Mosaic reference being vetted enough to justify the stance, why ask the question or use the answer? Yes, I know Christian professors who hold that the text does imply belief and some a command to believe, but the arguments entailed consider the biblical text as justification and since none hold the implied command is strong enough, those that I am aware of do not use that command in this manner. I also recognize the medieval problem.
However, I am left with the same question: If God does not actually command belief in the text, then why philosophize about whether or not it is possible or impossible for Him to do so? In other words, if the problem of the logic is strong enough to justify rejecting Divine Command Theory in general, should it not be grounded in the biblical text?
That being said; If the rejection of Divine Command is only text-specific such as “The divine command theory [of this passage] is false” as opposed to the more generalized conclusion “The divine command theory is false”, then I understand. However, the paragraphs leading up to the conclusion of the paper, the words of the conclusion, and your response seem to eliminate this option, therefore, I am still not understanding.
Bottom line, if there is an implied or understood “of this passage” in the paper, the problem is solved and I withdraw my ruminations.
If the conclusion stands as stated, then I remain confused concerning the argument because without exegesis of the actual passage, the conclusion rejecting Divine Command Theory in general seems unwarranted.
You could understand one of the points this way: Most or many religious believers think that there is an obligation to believe in God. And they might believe that there is such an obligation on the basis of their interpretation of the bible or on some other basis. But, whatever you think of the bible, such an obligation is at odds with the divine command theory. So most or many religious believers have a reason for rejecting the divine command theory.
Thanks Ty, It seems as though my comments have stifled this dialogue, I apologize. And I truly mean, peace. Thanks for your thoughts, Dan.
A comment on the first part of the argument, as it appears on p. 167. One possible way around the circularity Tyron Goldschmidt points to is to exploit the opacity of intentionality. Imagine this scenario. Abe, newly drawn to religion, sets out on an autodidactic study, starting with a reading of the Pentateuch that is helped here and there by one or two of the classic interpreters. He’s read Genesis and has been powerfully inspired into a firm belief in Gd. But this is, so far, just the Gd he’s read about there, the Gd who made promises to the patriarchs. It’s admittedly a belief in Gd as characterized limitedly — let’s call this the Gd of the Patriarchs. But I don’t think this limited familiarity is clear reason to deny that he believes in Gd. He now skips ahead and reads the first commandment, and with the help of his interpreters he understands it — or really misunderstands it — as saying that Gd, the One he’s so far familiar with and believes firmly in, namely, the Gd of the Patriarchs, commands him to believe in a Gd Who redeemed Israel from Egypt, the Gd of Redemption. (We need to ignore the fact that Gd, in the first commandment, identifies Himself as the Redeemer from Egypt; the whole scenario presupposes misinterpretation by Abe; but the story remains plausible.) Abe then complies with this commandment: he gets himself to believe in the Gd of Redemption, because he believes that the Gd of the Patriarchs has commanded him to do so. (Again, ignore the question of whether it is possible to will oneself to believe something — Ty Goldschmidt has astutely isolated that question from this distinct issue.)
Now, we know that the Referents of these two beliefs of Abe’s are One and the Same Gd, even though the senses differ in some measure. This means that both are, at the least in an extensional sense, beliefs about Gd. But also more than this: it does not seem to me clear that we cannot identify, as Gd, the intentional contents of each of these beliefs. The question is, is there enough in the way Abe conceives of Gd, in each case, to enable us to identify this content as Gd? I need of course to admit that Abe’s conceptions of Gd are importantly at variance with the monotheistic conception of Gd. Each of his conceptions lacks, for one thing, the idea of Gd as leaving no room for a divine being that is not identical to Himself. Some of us might just for this reason be inclined to disagree that we can attribute to Abe any belief at all in Gd. But this is not clear cut, and requires, I suspect, a larger discussion than belongs in this present space. It therefore does not seem to me conclusive that we cannot describe Abe as having come to have a belief in the existence of Gd, because of his belief that Gd has commanded him to have this belief. Or at the very least, Ty Goldschmidt is forced to add something in his argument about the characteristics of the Gd we’d believe in, Who cannot, if he’s right, coherently command us to believe in Himself.
You haven’t stifled the dialogue at all, and your comments were much appreciated! Thank you.
Dear Michael Haruni,
Thank you for your comment. This strikes me as a clever point.
If I understand you correctly, the objection can be summarized as follows: Someone can conform with a command to believe in god B, and because they believe that god A issued the command. They can thus comply with the command of god A to believe in god B. They do not believe that god A is the same as god B. But, as it turns out, god A is the same as god B, i.e. God. They can thus comply with the command of God to believe in God.
I think Abarbanel addresses a proposal from Albo that the command could be from an angel. Abarbanel answers that this is not a plausible reading of the verse–“*I* am the Lord your God”. If I recall correctly. In any case, a command from an angel would not be a command from God. But my argument is not supposed to depend on an interpretation of the verse, and your proposal is of a command from God.
You might be right. I’d have to think about the “larger discussion”, but I’m inclined to agree with you. I’d then have to qualify the argument to stipulate that the subject understands that the command is from the same God it is a command to believe in.
I’ll give this some more thought. If I can soon see another reply, I’ll post it
By the way, is this *the same* Michael Haruni who put together a photographic edition of the siddur?
Thank you so much for your response to my comment. I also greatly appreciate the openness and integrity of your thought on the issues you initially presented.
I think you state very lucidly the point I wanted to make, regarding the referential identity of the Gd of the Patriarchs and the Gd of Redemption. Here, though, is a further question, which I probably did not state so clearly, I think concerning the intentional identity of these figures. The protagonist of my scenario, Abe, has a belief in the Gd of the Patriarchs, and a belief in the Gd of Redemption. We can imagine these beliefs of Abe’s varying with respect to the sets of properties they impute, respectively, to each of these figures. In some of these variations, Abe’s beliefs about each of them might be too inconsistent with our concept of Gd, to enable us to attribute to Abe any belief in Gd. For instance, if he believes that this Gd of the Patriarchs is a weakling and immoral and coexists with other divine forces, then we’ll presumably deny that this is a belief about Gd. So some measure of conformity with our conception is required for this to be about Gd. Now at the same time, it seems like there needs to be some degree of difference between the two god figures in Abe’s different beliefs, in order for it to be possible for the command of one to be Abe’s reason to believe in the other. So the question arises, is it possible that, on the one hand, both figures are close enough to Gd as we conceive Him, for Him to be Gd; but on the other hand, different enough from each other in order for it to be possible for Abe to come to believe in one because of the command of the other?
And a further question emerging here is this: When we speak here of it being “possible for the command of one to be Abe’s reason to believe in the other”, what kind of “possible” this is? Is this just a contingent psychological possibility? Is it possible in principle for Abe to have quite close conceptions of each of these god figures, yet (stupidly perhaps) to be able to take the command of one as reason to believe in the other? It could be that his doing so would in principle prevent our coherently attributing these beliefs, i.e., I suspect it would be evidence against his having these beliefs in our psychological theory of Abe. Beware, though, for if Abe could have quite close beliefs about each of the god figures — so that we can even attribute to him a belief that they are identical — while being only contingently constrained from taking the command of one as reason to believe in the other (perhaps overcome if he’s especially stupid), then I suspect this becomes a more serious difficulty for your main point. I have no idea at this point; but I’m ever so curious to think on this further.
Am I identical to that person of the same name who put together the siddur with photos, Nehalel beShabbat (and the very-soon-to-appear Nehalel beChol)? Guilty. Extensionally at least. I’m really very touched that you make the connection.
Thanks again for the discussion.
Thank for your kind words and your follow up questions.
Regarding the first: Yes, in my opinion it is possible for someone to have a belief in God A and a belief in God B, for both those beliefs to be about the same God, and for the subject not to realize that they are about the same God. Compare: I might come to believe in the existence of and lots of things about Cicero and Tully, but think that Cicero is a different person from Tully, even though Cicero is in fact the same person as Tully.
Abe too could come to believe in, say, the all-just God of Genesis, and he could come to believe in, say, the all-loving God of Exodus. He might come to believe that “God of Genesis” and “God of Exodus” name different beings, even though they name the same being. At least, I don’t see anything in either the descriptive content or the causal original of the names that would rule this out. For an interesting discussion of names and “God”, see chapter 1 of Jerome Gellman’s ‘Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief’.
As to your second question, this seems to me psychologically possible, and thus nomologically possible, and thus metaphysically possible. It is possible in every way. Indeed, I see no reason for ruling out that it has not actually occurred at some point. And I can’t see why a second person couldn’t attribute someone these beliefs to someone in a particular case either. Though such a case would be very unusual and unexpected.