Saturday, January 17, 2009

Types of Theological Non-Realism

Clearly, the question of realism is hotly debated in philosophy, forming one of the standard lines of inquiry in the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language and logic, and the philosophy of religion. One can be a global or local realist, that is, one can be a non-realist with respect to all subject matters, or merely non-realist with respect to some, while remaining realist with respect to others. For instance, one could be realist about the things talked about in astronomy and non-realist about those specified in ethics and morality. Furthermore, one can be realist or non-realist with respect to degree. There are many ways to be realist and anti-realist, and clearly some views are more robustly realist (or non-realist) than others. Discussing theological realism demands we first get clear on realism in general. Let us call the following position generic realism.

Object a is real if and only if a exists and has the properties it has (call them P) apart from human awareness, perception, conceptual schemes, beliefs, and linguistic practices.

Given this characterization, the first distinction that must be made is between an object, property, or event’s existence from its independence. One might, after all, simply claim that a does not exist. An example of this is the nominalist who denies the existence of platonic universals. All statements presupposing or asserting the existence of a universal would be false because such things simply do not exist.

One might, however, allow the existence of a, yet deny its independence. For example, the transcendental idealist might claim that the object exists apart from us, by that all of its features are dependent upon us, that is, the properties are dependent of their being experienced by the subject. With respect to the question of God, one might therefore reject theological realism by denying the existence of God, or one might merely deny the independence of the divine properties from their being perceived or conceived by human beings.

If one claims that God does not exist, or that God does not instantiate the properties attributed to Him, then all of the theory that talks about God (theology) must be an extended error. Philosophers call accounts putatively referring to domains of non-existing objects, properties or events error theories. For instance, if mathematical objects do not exist, then accounts referring to them are clearly in error; statements within such theories are false. Similarly, if there are no ethical or moral properties, then one might claim that theories about such things also constitute error accounts. So the first question for theology has been, and must always be, is theology itself an error theory? Are any statements of theology true, or are such statements false, just like all statements referring to such questionable entities as ghosts, goblins, and ghouls.

At this point, however, things can get complicated. What do we do with matters of reduction? Do those objects, properties or events exist for which a reduction is possible? Prima facie, we might want to say that all statements about the reductandum (that to be reduced) are false when we can specify the reductantes(those things doing the reducing) necessary and sufficient for the existence of those things to be reduced. For instance, if God is instantiated if and only if the “whence” of the feeling of absolute dependence (Schleiermacher) is instantiated, then one might claim that God just is the whence of this feeling of absolute dependence, that there is nothing more to God than this ”whence” of absolute dependence.

Notice, however, that reductions of this type do not formally entail non-realism with respect to the class of objects in question. Water is instantiated just in case H20 is instantiated, but this does not mean that water is not real. One might say that the existence of H20 actually vindicates the existence of water. On the other hand, when we learned that “polywater” is instantiated if and only if water with impurities from improperly washed glassware is instantiate, we thus eliminate polywater from the world of existing objects.

Thus, reductions can be either vindicative or eliminative. If we find that some disjunction of neurophysical properties are instantiated if and only if a particular mental state is instantiated, then do we claim that the mental states have no ontological status, or do we point out that the existence of the neuro-realizers actually makes mental causation possible, and consequently, that mental properties can be said to exist after all?

It seems to me that whether or not a reduction is vindicative or eliminative depends a great deal upon our expectations. If we are expecting mental phenomenon to have ontological status in the way a Cartesian dualist might think about it, then obviously the reduction might lead us to deny ontological status to the mental. However, if our expectations are that the mental is really epiphenomenal, that such properties are in principle unable to enter into causal relations, then the reduction of them to disjunctions of causal neural-realizers might vindicate the existence of the mental to us. Formally, just as thinking of a golden mountain in France is a mental state instantiated if and only some causally efficacious disjunction of neuro-configurations are instantiated , so too is water instantiated if and only if H20 is instantiated.

This question is obviously important for theology and, to my mind, has again much to do with expectation. If we expect that God is a being who has the kind of causal powers that would allow for the answering of prayer and the resurrection of the dead, then we are likely to think that the Schleiermacherian reduction eliminates use of the word ‘God’, for there is no referent to ‘God’ in the way that the language has been traditionally understood. However, if we believe that God-talk already makes no sense whatsoever, finding a reference to ‘God’ as the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence may actually vindicate the term’s use. We might accordingly ascribe ontological status to God, though we are not meaning by ‘God’ what was meant by the term during most of the western theological tradition. So the statements of theology could all be false because the objects, properties, events, and states of affairs referred to by the language of theology do not exist, and yet the putative reductions of the theological to human experience do not entail that theology itself constitutes an error theory. If theology is an error-theory, reduction alone does not entail it to be such.

In addition to the assertion that theology is an error-theory by being comprised of statements that are truth-apt, but nonetheless false, we might want to deny realism in theology be claiming that the language of theology is not truth-apt at all. Perhaps theological language mimics the role of language once widely ascribed to ethical and moral discourse; perhaps theological language is expressivist, and makes no factual claim whatsoever?

Expressivism in theology constitutes itself in parallel fashion to its ethical counterpart. Instead of the putative statements of ethics referring to an objective moral reality, or to subjective but determinate states, ethical sentences merely express emotions of approbation or disapprobation with respect to a particular agent or act. Saying that ‘John is wrong to steal the candy’ thus is analyzed into “‘John stealing candy’, boo!” Ethical sentences merely express one’s emotional response to an ethical situation. They make no more of a truth claim than someone crying.

Pure expressionism in theology is difficult to find in the recent literature for a number of reasons - - one may be courage - - but clearly much theological discussion merely evinces the speaker’s feelings about a particular thing. In liberationist theologies of all kinds, oftentimes it seems that the writer is quite unconcerned with the factuality of the divine, and quite concerned with persuading people about his social/political/economic/cultural agenda. An expressionist account may be the most plausible to offer in such situations.

But what about discourse that is truth-apt, but nevertheless does make claims about the divine - - not all of which are false? Interestingly enough, theological discourse of this type seemingly need not be realist; while one might grant existence to divine entities and properties, one still might deny that such things have independence apart from human perception, conceptual schemes and linguistic practice.

Bishop Berkeley is famous, of course, for his denial that matter exists apart from mind. Although, as he says, “we must talk like the vulgar and think like the wise,” it is nonetheless true that “all the choir of heaven and the furniture of earth, in a word all those bodies that compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind” (Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, 1710). Although our statements about matter and its relationships are either true or false apart from us, matter is wholly dependent upon human being; the contour of matter is clearly dependent upon human perceptual experience. With respect to theology, God may not be independent of human experience, yet sentences about God might still be true or false. Accordingly, one can be an anti-realist with respect to the domain of the divine if one holds that statements about this domain are true or false, but that the entire domain is somehow dependent upon human cognition.

So what are the options for the anti-realist theist who denies expressivism and error theory? In parallel with the contemporary discussion in the philosophy of science, it seems one might hold that postulation of the divine realm, though not independent of human experience, still is needed to account for human experience. This type of argument basically proceeds as an “inference to the best explanation” argument: One asserts that there is a divine being having such and such a nature because the assertion of such a being best explains the kind of experience we have and the kind of world we seem to have. Another possibility is to argue that the consensus of theological opinion is not extension-reflecting of the references of theological language, but rather extension-determining, that is, agreed upon theological statements act to determine the very reality they report. The objects, properties, events and states of affairs of theological theory are judgment-dependent, not judgment-independent.

So what are our options in theology with respect to the issue of realism?

1) One might say that the statements of theology are truth-apt, but because no divine reality exists, they are all false and thus theology constitutes an error theory. Clearly, this view is not an option for a theist engaged in the theological task.

2) might say that the statements of theology are not truth-apt; they are merely expressions of human emotion, value, or orientations. While this view may be an improvement over the previous, it is not a very promising way to proceed theologically. After all, while one seems more or less stuck with ethical language because of the nature of human relationships, this seems not to be true of theological language. This language seems more prone to elimination than the former kind.

3) One might say that the statements of language are truth-apt and not globally false. Simply put, one might say that divine reality exists in some way, yet deny the independence of this reality from human awareness, perception, conception and language. On this view, one could claim that the assertion of the existence of divine reality is justified on the basis of an inference to the best explanation or on the basis a theological consensus that somehow determines theological extension itself. While (3) is more promising than (1) and (2), they run into real difficulties in explaining the truth of discourse about the person and work of the Christ. Does the salvific work of Christ constitute the best explanation of our human experience? It seems unlikely. In fact, scripture and tradition have referred to Christ as a “stumbling block” for human reason. And as regards to any theological consensus, it is precisely at the point of our discourse about Christ that we lose consensus, or at least enough consensus to derail any anti-realist effort presupposing a uniformity of theological opinion.

So what is left? It seems to me that what is left is theological realism, the assertion that God exists and has His nature apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. The assertion of such a God and descriptions of His nature seem to be clearly evidence-transcending. Human beings simply cannot be in relevant perceptual causal connections to those divine states of affairs that make assertions of the Trinity true. This being said, however, there is another kind of way that such statements might be justified. If these statements’ causal history includes the activity of the Holy Spirit, one might hold that they make claims about the reality of the divine without be wholly evidence transcendent. If the theologian can be a semantic realist without having to assert an extreme position with regard to evidence-transcendence, there may be no good reason fro the theologian not to be a semantic realist. This question is important, I think, and we shall explore it in the next post on semantic realism.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, this is very interesting post, thanks! I'm working about the possibility of an Islamic non-realist theology and liberal theology. hope that some time these two lines come to interaction and dialogue.