This short series of Gifford Lectures from veteran analytic British philosopher Michael Dummett is both an excellent introduction to Dummett’s own work as well as an entry level work on some of the main concerns of British philosophy within the analytic tradition – particularly reflecting the turn away from a focus on philosophy of language and towards metaphysics. Written in Dummett’s typically clear and precise style, the book consists of eight chapters, splitting the four lectures in two. Beginning with an exploration of semantics and metaphysics, Dummett makes the point that reality and the world are not composed of facts but is rather determined by them. This leads to a critique of truth-conditional semantics, which, for Dummett, is philosophically circular and necessitates a commitment to an overly simplistic realism. (Here there is some interesting crossover between Dummett and Gianni Vattimo with his notion of “weak thought”). The middle section of the book argues for a justificationist view on language: ‘According to an explanation of this type, the understanding of a sentence (as uttered on a given occasion) is to be taken to consist in an ability, when suitably placed, to recognize that it is true or false, even though no effective method exists for so placing one’s self.’ (59) This kind of semantic theory of language is entirely congruent with the overall anti-realist argument of the whole book and leads into what is the most interesting section of the book for readers interested in theology and philosophy of religion.
What is particularly striking about this series of lectures is the focus on time. Dummett develops an a-symmetrical view of the past and the future respectively. Here Dummett takes issue with the theories advanced by thinkers such as C.D. Broad — namely that the past and present have real existence but the future, as long as it is the future, does not. In this view of things, reality is cumulative, but, as Dummett explains, this theory involves violating the law of special relativity. Furthermore, after exploring the philosophical implications of this cumulative approach to reality leads us to have to accept the notion that reality is both consistently unchanging and therefore, to a degree, is unstable. Dummett’s own view is best described as a qualified anti-realism which both maintains a degree of truth content whilst allowing that there may be things we did not know, or that were once known and are not known now. It is in the implications of this argument as it relates to theology which are probably of most value, especially to theologians. In the final lecture and the section ‘God and the World,’ the argument is made that if we wish to suppose that there is some degree of commonality to the world we find ourselves in, we need a conception of itself and this requires God to be (logically speaking) thinkable. This, of course, depends upon the conception of a single world which some philosophical traditions would deny, but would, for Dummett, result in a ‘jumble of different worlds, our own and those of other creatures, which cannot be coherently related to each other.’ (101) Rather than take on the realist position which would involve being ‘guilty of the presumption of reasoning as if [one] were God,’ (109) Dummett sees the existence of God as both eminently possible, in so far as his broader philosophical claims about time and metaphysics are true, and logically possible. This brief volume is more of interest to readers experienced with the analytic tradition than those used to theological debates, but this serves as an excellent way of opening avenues of investigation between analytic metaphysics and theology more broadly.