Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Exegetical Note: Aikin's "The Problem of Worship"

I like arguments. I particularly like arguments with a formal structure made up of a numbered propositions and inferential relations. As is apparent from other posts on this blog, I also like constructing maps that represent the inferential relationships between the numbered propositions.

Given all these likes, one would think that Scott Aikin’s article “The Problem of Worship” would be right up my alley. After all, it consists of 15 numbered propositions, linked together by a series of inferential relationships. Alas, the article is not entirely satisfactory because the formal argument that Aikin presents suffers from a number of deficiencies.

I think there are three main reasons for these deficiencies (i) typographical errors result in conclusions being drawn from the wrong premises; (ii) inconsistent use of terminology leads to conclusions that are unrelated to the premises; and (iii) two major conclusions are reached which, although related, are distinct.

I’ll give examples of each of these problems below. On the whole, I don’t think any of these deficiencies substantially detract from the persuasiveness of Aikin’s article. I wouldn’t discuss it if I thought it without merit. But they do, I think, justify my attempt to reconstruct his argument rather than directly summarise it.

Problem One: Typographical Errors
It is common in philosophical argumentation to state from which premises one is drawing a particular conclusion. Aikin does this at several points in his article (conclusions 9, 10, 11, 13, 14 and 15). The problem is that, on two of these occasions, the premises from which the conclusions are drawn are misidentified. The first example is (10) which states the following (p. 110):

• (10) Therefore, A is not obliged to hold any object to be worthy of worship (from 6 and 9).

The problem is that premises (6) and (9) state the following, respectively:

• (6) If A has no reason to see any property W of X as making X worthy of worship then A is obliged not to worship X.

• (9) Therefore, there are no W-properties any A may reasonably see as making any x worthy of worship.

The difficulty this poses should be apparent. Although (9) is fine, (6) is a principle stating that A is under a positive obligation (duty) not to worship X in certain circumstances. But the conclusion reached is that A is not obliged to hold any object to be worthy of worship (i.e. not worshipping is morally permissible). This is not a conclusion about A’s positive obligations so could not be drawn from premise (6).

The problem is easily corrected. (10) can be drawn from a combination of (5) and (9) because (5) says the following:

• (5) If A is obliged to view X as worthy of worship, then A must have reason to see some property W of X as making X worthy of worship.

Given the facile nature of this correction, I presume the problem is the result of typographical error.

The same basic problem occurs again in relation to (11), which states:

• (11) Therefore, A is obliged not to hold any object to be worthy of worship (from 7 and 9).

This can’t be right because (7) is principle stating when it is reasonable to believe that an entity is worthy of worship, not a principle stating what our positive obligations are with respect to worship. Once again this problem is easily corrected. Premise (6) does state a principle relating to positive obligations, so (11) can be drawn from a combination of (6) and (9).

There is another typographical error in the conclusion when Aikin refers to premises (8) and (9) in relation to evidentialism. I presume he meant to refer to premises (5) and (6).

Problem Two: Inconsistent Use of Terminology
The correction of (11) does highlight another problem with Aikin’s article. As can be seen above, (11) is a conclusion about A’s obligations to hold an entity worthy of worship, whereas (6) is a premise about obligations to worship in general. So even with my correction, (11) cannot properly be drawn from (6). A more general conclusion can reached, viz. “A is obliged not to worship any x”.

There is a way to solve this problem. It requires that we go back to premise (3) which defines what is involved in the act of worship:

(3) For any rational moral agent A, if A worships x, A’s worship is the joint performance of three acts:
• (a) A is unconditionally obedient to X and to the demands that X’s existence and properties place on A;
• (b) A views x as absolutely worthy of worship;
• (c) A performs rituals or communicative acts expressing 3(a) and 3(b)

As can be seen, believing x to be worthy of worship is part and parcel of the act of worshipping, so it would be implied by reaching the more general form of (11). Of course, we could repair this in another way by going back to (6) and changing the principle so that it is restricted to “obliged not to hold x worthy of worship”. The problem is that this approach seems unnecessary.

Allowing for the more general form of (11) does create some downstream problems. In particular it means that the additional argumentation that Aikin offers for (13) is redundant since (13) just states that rational moral agents are obliged not to worship any entities - a conclusion that will have already been reached by (11). I think Aikin is aware of this himself since just after stating (11) in the narrow form, he states (p. 110) “given that we shouldn’t worship God (on 11)”. This is clearly a general claim about worship not a claim about worthiness of worship.

There is another problem arising from terminology. This one relates to the use of the word “unconditional” in premise (3), given above. The inclusion of the word suggests that Aikin thinks the act of worship necessarily involves unconditional obedience. Aikin follows this up by stating (well, to be fair, he does offer an argument) that:
• (4) Unconditional submission to any authority contravenes the requirements of moral agency.
If we accept this premise (and I think we probably should), then it automatically follows that we should not worship any being. Why? Because Aikin has already defined worship as including unconditional obedience (I am assuming obedience and submission are interchangeable).

This is weird because Aikin goes on to stress that conditional obedience is allowable. He then considers whether God possesses any properties that would make him worthy of conditional obedience (he actually refers to worship, not obedience, further muddying the waters). This argumentation seems unnecessary if he thinks worship involves unconditional obedience. Only if he thinks some kind of conditional-obedience-based worship were permissible would it be necessary to consider those arguments.

Thus I would be inclined to correct premise (3) by removing the term unconditional from the definition of worship. This would leave premise (4) intact.

Problem 3: What is the Argument?
A final problem I have with Aikin’s argument is that it seems to mix-up related but distinct arguments and avoid making necessary arguments.

One of these arguments, probably the main one, leads to the conclusion that God does not exist. This conclusion is backed up by (roughly) the following chain of reasoning: there is no being that we are obliged to worship; God is supposed to be worthy of obligatory worship; so there must not be a God.

[Note: This chain of argumentation is problematic given the repairs undertaken above. In particular, if we drop the “unconditional obedience” clause from our definition of worship, then it is possible that there might be some entities who are worthy of worship. Thus we will have to offer an argument more like the following: God is supposed to be worthy of obligatory worship; None of God’s properties make him worthy of obligatory worship; so there must not be a God (at least going by present descriptions of his properties).]

There is also another significant argument about the practical or social implications of the fact that no rational moral agent is allowed to unconditionally surrender to another being. The argument is that since surrender to God would be unconditional, and would involve communicative and ritual acts of worship, it must be the case that communicative and ritual acts of worship are impermissible. Aikin makes this point in premise (12).

I think this is really interesting, but I think it is distinct from the main argument that Aikin is making and so is worth separating out from that argument. Maybe this desire to keep these points separate is just a personal quirk of my own. I am, after all, primarily interested in the socio-political aspects of what Aikin has to say.

A final problem arises from my confusion over whether Aikin is making an argument that is specifically about God or about all possible beings X. The conclusions that he reaches are certainly phrased in terms of “all possible beings X” (see his 9, 10, 11, 13 and 14), but the argumentation he offers focuses on God, not all possible beings.

This problem comes to the fore when Aikin infers (9) from (7) and (8). (9) was stated above and is clearly about the properties possessed by all possible beings. But (7) and (8), and the preceding paragraphs, are clearly about God’s properties. It seems then like an additional argument is needed which would run along the following lines:

• (a) If any being is worthy of (unconditional) worship, then it is God.
• (b) None of God’s properties make him worthy of (unconditional) worship.
• (c) Therefore, it is unlikely that any being is worthy of (unconditional) worship.

This conclusion (c) would then effectively be equivalent to Aikin’s (8).

Conclusion
This exegetical note has been long and, perhaps, uninteresting. I want to be very clear that despite my problems, I enjoyed Aikin’s article and found much of value in it. I’m also aware that I have limited experience and credentials in the great game of philosophy. It may be that Aikin’s argument is coherent and that the problems I have identified are products of my own misunderstanding.

If that is the case, I am willing to be corrected.