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Must God be a realist?


To: Wendy B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Must God be a realist?
Date: 27 February 2004 12:36

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 February, with your fourth Metaphysics essay, in response to the question, 'Must God be a Realist?' which is a fascinating excursion through many different conceptions of God.

As you may have realized, the aim of an inquiry into metaphysics is to consider every possibility, which means that we are not confined to theories which have appeared in Western philosophy. It is worth noting, however, that philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Hegel were keenly aware of - and to some extent influenced by - philosophical thought outside the Western tradition.

In answering this essay question, it would be helpful to distinguish this question from another question which might have been asked, 'Must God be a materialist?'

As you know, in this program I have taken pains to distinguish the clash between realism and anti-realism, as theories of *truth* from the clash between materialism and immaterialism (traditionally referred to as 'realism' vs. 'idealism') as theories of *existence*.

To the question, 'Must God be a materialist?' (or realist, in the traditional sense) it would seem that the answer is, 'No' if, for example, we accept Berkeley's theory as a possibility. This is a point that you make. In the Berkeleian universe, there is God, the infinite spirit, and there is us, the finite spirits, and everything that 'exists' apart from spirit, exists as mental objects, either in God's mind or our minds.

The theory of anti-realism, by contrast, is a theory about the nature of truth, or 'facts', rather than about the nature of objects. So you can be a materialist (traditional 'realist') and also an anti-realist, or you can be an immaterialist (idealist) and also an anti-realist.

Here's the problem:

In order to express belief in realism, it seems that one needs to say something like, 'It is possible for there to be truths which no-one can ever know.' If an omniscient God exists, however, then there cannot be any such truths. If anything is a truth, then God knows it!

So this *looks* like a proof that God cannot be a realist. That is to say, God cannot express to himself the thought, 'It is possible for there to be truths which no-one can ever know.'

Fortunately, there is another way to express belief in realism, and that is to say, 'Every question human beings can ask - whether they are able to answer it or not - has an answer in reality.'

To this, an omniscient God can certainly agree.

However, the question was not, 'Can God be a realist?', but rather, 'Must God be a realist?' In other words, is it possible for God to be an anti-realist? what would that mean?

Picture a lazy deity who decides not to go to all the effort and trouble of creating the whole universe in all its myriad details. Instead, the deity creates just enough reality - but no more - to give human beings every reason to believe (falsely, as it turns out) that there is much more 'out there' beyond the limits of what we can know. In reality, there is nothing 'out there' but a fog of possibilities, an empty space on the canvas where God has just not bothered to make any brush strokes.

The world of the lazy deity is like a film set back drop, which looks real through the camera, while the actors and director can see the cardboard and wooden props.

Of course, I am not seriously attempting to describe God's motivation, merely sketching what seems to be a logical possibility.

On second thoughts is my description of a 'back-drop' world really coherent as a description of a world where anti-realism is true? Can you see any inconsistencies in this account? For example, how does God decide whether or not to include a given detail? Maybe I am able to know a fact which no-one else will ever know (e.g. that a fly is crawling across my office window at this moment.) So does God include the fly or not? Evidently, he must. After I'm dead and gone what happens to the fly on the window then? Can God erase facts? Does that make sense?

Frankly, I am in two minds about the back-drop world. I am sure that you can think of other objections in addition to the one I have given. Can the objections ultimately be met? Something to think about!

All the best,