Saturday, February 27, 2010

'God', Descriptivism, and Reference

In the last two blog posts, I have discussed some possible advantages to understanding 'God' as used by Christians as a rigid designator. Spurning the descriptivist view that 'God' just means 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit', I have suggested we might move forward theologically by delimiting the semantic content of the term. In this post, I want to discuss the descriptivist theory of naming generally and some of its well-known flaws. After briefly discussing the causal theory of reference, I will describe problems arising when when 'God' is regarded as a disguised definite description. Finally, I will discuss how it might be semantically fruitful causally to fix the reference of 'God' over various possible worlds.

When considering phrases like 'Frege is the author of the Begriffschrift', we can distinguish among the following:

  • The mechanism by which the word 'Frege' might attach to a particular object in the world.
  • The meaning of the term - - either construed as the mechanism by which reference is established or perhaps as the reference of the term.
  • The relation between the mechanism by which reference is established, or perhaps reference, and the truth-conditions of assertive sentences containing the term.
The question is this: How do singular terms, particularly proper names refer? What is the mechanism by which 'God' refers; what meaning does the term have, and how might assertions containing the term be either true or false?

Descriptivist theories of proper names claim a proper name like 'Frege' has an associated description - - which can vary from speaker to speaker and over time - - by which reference is accomplished. The mechanism on the basis of which reference is fixed forms, on the descriptivist theory, the meaning of the term or expression at hand.

Descriptivist views developed in opposition to Millian theories of naming, whereby the name was regarded to have no semantic content. Frege famously argued that 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star' gives informative content. Accordingly, material identity statements seem to cry out for an analysis in terms of descriptive content. 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star' seem to mean different things, though they have a common reference. If the meaning of a term were simply its reference, then an informative identity statement is seemingly impossible. But it seems that informative identity statements are possible, therefore, by modus tollens, the meaning of a term cannot be its reference.

Or take 'Fred Flintstone does not exist'. If the meaning of 'Fred Flintstone' is its referent, than how can 'Fred Flintstone does not exist' have meaning, for the necessary condition for meaningfulness clearly does not obtain?

Or take 'Janet believes that Melanchthon, but not the author of the 1521 Loci Communes, wrote on rhetoric'. If 'Melanchthon' and 'the author of the 1521 Loci Communes' have the same referent, how can Janet, a supposed rational agent, hold the statement to be true?

On a descriptivist view, these problems seem to dissolve. For instance, it is different semantic content that makes 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star' informative. In 'Fred Flintstone does not exist', 'Fred Flintstone functions as a description that is not satisfied. In 'Janet believes that Melanchthon wrote on rhetoric, but not the author of the 1521 Loci Communes', it is because Janet associates different semantic content to each of the terms that the statement is true.

But Ruth Barcan Marcus, and later Saul Kripke, argue subsequently (and persuasively) that names do not have semantic content after all, and thus are not semantically equivalent to any description. For both thinkers, proper names refer directly without mediation of an associated description. For Kripke, not only proper names, but also definite descriptions and natural kind terms (e.g., sheep) rigidly designate their bearers. Kripke points to three problems with descriptivist views: the epistemic problem, the modal problem, and the semantic problem.

The epistemic problem is the problem of unwanted necessity. Suppose that Bob knows that the Morning Star is the Evening Star because he knows they refer to the same thing. Then to Bob, adjusting his associated descriptions, it would seem that 'Morning Star is Evening Star' is necessary. But clearly this is not necessary, thus a descriptivist account is false.

The modal problem arises when the application of descriptive content to names produces absurdities in counterfactual situations. Imagine that to the word 'Fred Flintstone' we associate the greatest cartoon figure of the 1960s. Then were Fred Flintstone not to have been invented, 'Popeye the sailor lived in Bedrock' would be true - - if the description 'greatest cartoon figure of the 1960s were now satisfied by Popeye the sailor.

The semantic problem emerges when a description is falsely associated with a name. Take, for instance, the description 'the author of the Speculative Grammar'. Tradition has it that Duns Scotus was the author. But it may have been Thomas Bradwardine. Thus, if one were to say 'Duns Scotus died in 1308' and have as the associated description 'the author of the Speculative grammar', then the statement would be false because Thomas Bradwardine died in 1349.

The fact that names have no semantic content is consistent with a causal theory of reference, a theory that allows for a neo-Millian approach to proper names. According to the theory, in a reference-fixing event there is a dubbing of a name to a bearer, a relationship that is then causally transmitted linguistically. 'Aristotle' thus names the individual writing the Metaphysics in this world, while it names the same person in other possible worlds who did not write the Metaphysics. Instead of demanding a criterion of transworld identification that would pick out the same individual in different possible worlds, the proper name rigidly designates the same individual in all possible worlds - - not by virtue of a description, but through causal reference.

How does the descriptivist account fare with respect to the term 'God'? Plausibly, we might claim an associated description of 'God' as the sum total of all positive properties to the infinite degree. Accordingly, 'God' would pick out in each and every world that being that has the available properties and degrees instantiatable in that world. Obviously, a world in which there is neither goodness, love, nor even thought would have a very different being satisfying the description 'God'. To say, 'God could have created a world without goodness' demands that this God is instantiated in possible worlds without goodness, not simply that some being or other fulfills the suitable description in other possible worlds - - some without either matter or thought.

Of course, the idea that 'God' names the same being in all possible worlds in which He exists suggests that there is some ontological contour to God, a contour projectible across possible worlds. While this individual divine essence cannot be wholly specified, the fact that one names this God rather than that one suggests an ontological contour to the divine. More to the point, to say that 'God is good' is to say that the individual referred to by 'God' in all possible worlds in which that individual exists is identical to the instantiation of goodness - - whatever "the instantiation of goodness" quite means. All properties of God are accordingly essential to God, and they apply to God necessarily.

It is critically important to disambiguate logical, conceptual and metaphysical necessity here. While the freedom of God implies that God could have done other than what God did in fact do (and thus that 'God is good' is neither a logical nor conceptual truth), the way that God is constitutes God's essence in this world and in every world where this God is. Given the choice God has made for human beings, God's contour is metaphysically necessary for God to be God. From the standpoint of the reference of 'God', God could still have been other than good, for it is logically possible for God to have done other that what God did. While human beings generally know God as 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit', in salvation history the reference of 'God' is accordingly fixed such that it is now metaphysically necessary for God to be good. This necessity, however, is intraworldly, it applies to those world's in which the conditional 'God established covenant x' is true.

Another way of saying this is that God is identical to love and goodness in all metaphysically possible worlds, but not so in all logically or conceptually possible worlds. The set of metaphysically necessary worlds is a subset of the set of logically necessary worlds. There are worlds in which God could do x that are not metaphysically accessible by the God who is who He is, and will be who He will be. The question concerns now the "bare particularity" of the divine, the One who in being other than who He is, could have still be somehow still Himself.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Luther, Ontology and Rigid Designation

I had a conversation yesterday with someone following this blog about whether or not yesterday's post Luther, God, and Rigid Designation, somehow was in conflict with the things I have earlier said about Luther and ontology. I want to clarify. Italic

To say that the locution 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit' fails to conform to the semantic situation presupposed by the potentia dei absoluta, is not to argue a different metaphysical or ontological point than I have previously made. We must distinguish from divine states of affairs and how they states of affairs are referred to or picked out. My point was that 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit' fails to allow projections of this God of Christianity into counterfactual situations like the following: 'God might have not willed theft to be a sin'. Clearly, the Nominalist insight is that it is of the nature of God that He could have done other than what He in fact did do. Accordingly, it is not necessary that God would have established a covenant with his Chosen People. It is precisely this radical contingency within the deus nudus that forms part of the experience, I think, of the deus absconditus. God in his awe-full majesty is at work in the apparent contingency of the world. The contour of His unbridled, but hidden will, cannot be domesticated by human thought and rationality.

This being said, God has from among possible worlds actualized this world, a world in which He is present in Christ as provident and beneficient. It is in this world that God is known to be constituted as Trinity. But once this fact is known, we can claim that this God is a Trinitarian God in all possible worlds. While 'that which none greater can be thought' picks out the Trinitarian God contingently, the locution does not constitute the essence of this God. Analogous to Kripke on the essence of water, we might say that the essence of God is to be Trinitarian, and mean by that that in possible worlds where Trinity is not established, neither is God, that is to say, in all possible worlds, the Trinity is instantiated if and only if God is instantiated.

None of what I say here undercuts that claim that God has a particular nature, an ontological contour, and that the truth-conditions of theological language, with appropriate qualification, allow for this contour either to be rightly or wrongly stated. In other words, the notion that 'God' could be understood as a rigid designator is fully consonant with the assertion that Luther was both a theological and semantic realist, that he held that God exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, and that language about this God is in principle capable of being true or false. What is lost in the semantic content of rigid designation is, in fact, gained in the metaphysical situation. Ontologically, one can be as robust as one wants, as long as 'necessity' as applied to God is not understood as logical or conceptual necessity, but as an intraworldly metaphysical necessity.

In other words, what I was trying to suggest in Luther, God and Rigid Designation is that the semantic notion of a rigid designator might be helpful in thinking through the radical freedom of God presupposed in late medieval Nominalism, and insofar as that divine freedom was, in fact, presupposed by Luther. I still claim that Luther is not a radical nominalist when it comes to his thinking about God, particularly his Christological thinking. Here, it does seem to me, that he needs to grant ontological status to natures, and cannot merely reduce them adverbially to ways in which the one divine-human entity is constituted or behaves.

I hope this clarifies the matter.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Luther, God, and Rigid Designation

Famously, Luther differed from Thomas in holding that God's power extended over the laws of logic. Thus, while Thomas could so that not even God could make a square circle, Luther denied this, holding that if God truly is an infinite being with infinite power, the laws of logic cannot dictate what God can do, or how God might be. Here Luther shows his indebtedness to late Medieval nominalism. That tradition had distinguished between the potentia dei absoluta and the potentia dei ordinata, between God considered with regard to his absolute power, and God considered in so far as he has covenanted to relate to human beings in certain ways. While Anselm had confidently defined (or described) God as "aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit" ("that which none greater can be thought") the nominalists of the via moderna understood that this view necessarily limits the being and action of God to that which human must think when thinking God. Why indeed must God be the way humans think God? Do we not limit God's being when we think the Being of God must be the way that humans think God?

Luther follows the nominalists here in understanding that God is not merely an abstract entity. While it is characteristic of abstract entities to have the being that they have for human thinking, it is not so for living, concrete entities. Take, for example, the number '3'. If Russell is correct, and '3' really is 'the set of all triples', then the essence of '3' has been clearly, statically, and eternally been discerned and asserted. (Please excuse the use of 'essence' talk here!) In the same key, to say that 'God' just means 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit' is to clearly, statically and eternally uncover the essentiality of God in God's very Being. The problem, of course, is that God is unlike the number '3' in being alive: God is a dynamic, living, causally-efficacious being. To have causal powers, to enter into causal relations, and to actually live in time suggests a disanalogy with an a priori essentialist account of God. (Luther seems to follow the tradition in holding that all of time is eternally present in God.)

To say that there is a potentia dei absoluta is to say that there are things about God that might not neatly fall under the description aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit. If God is God, after all, God's being is logically prior to our thinking of God. This means, among other things, that God possesses a fundamental freedom that might not be able to be rationally described by human beings. A fundamental commitment to this voluntaristic insight underlies Luther's thinking on God. If God is God, then God is free to be whoever God wants to be. God's freedom is not found, pace Spinoza, in His necessary conformity to His divine essence, but in His will. It is the nature of divine will to be radically free, for if God is omnipotent, God can do whatever God wants to do whenever God wants to do it. Accordingly, to reidentify God across possible worlds cannot be grounded upon what God happens to do in any actual world. God's power and freedom strips away the logic of perfection advocated by Anselm and presupposed by Thomas. All such attempts at a "divine grammar" must be viewed only in regard to how actually God has chosen to act with respect to His creation. A logic of perfection must be a conditional logic, one granting the antecedent, "Since God has shown himself to be X, then we can conclude . . . " It is, of course, a ramification of the hiddeness of God that no conceptualist transworld identity is possible.

So how does one refer to the Deus Absconditus, the God hidden whom courses through all things, and without which things would not be as they are? What semantic and metaphysical theory of the divine is actually consistent with what Luther says in The Bondage of the Will and other places; what metaphysics of God conforms to the demands of the deus absconditus, the hidden God?

Many Lutherans have simply rejected thinking about the hiddenness of God because Luther has advised that one must keep one's eyes upon the deus revelatus, the God revealed in Christ, and that reflection on the hiddenness of God will necessarily take one's eyes off of the Sache, off of the wonderful gift that God has given His people in Christ. While properly theologically motivated, the problem with this approach is that for many today it is precisely the hiddenness of God that must be thought in order for it to be understood to be a good thing to avert one's eyes from this God. The locution 'hiddenness of God' is not merely metaphorical, but it is a description of a reality, the reality of a God who can do other than what he does, and who apparently often acts in ways dissonant from what a human logic of perfection would predict. In other words, God does not behave in ways seemingly in accord with what a confident unpacking of His divine nature would assume. (It is characteristic of living beings to be this way, I think.) So how to think about this hiddenness of God?

I think it plausible here to use the notion of rigid designation in referring to a God who in His absolute power has taken very different attitudes towards us in other possible worlds. The idea would be this. The ancient Jews encountered a God through an initial baptism in experiences like the burning bush. This God of the "I am who I am" was the God that brought them out of the House of Egypt, who gave them Torah, who spoke through their prophets. This God whom they encountered is not a God for whom a criterion of transworld individuation could easily have been given. The ancient Israelites were waiting to see how this God who was would be toward them; they were waiting for his revelation of himself to them.

It is this God whom Jesus called "my Father," and it is this God then who is named by the Triune formula. However, just as water was water before its essence was known to be H2O, and just as it is now impossible to identify water apart from its identification with H2O, so was God, truly God prior to it being known that God is the Father of Christ - - even though it is now not possible to identify God apart from his identification as the Father of Jesus Christ. God being the Father of Christ is an a posteriori necessity in the same sense as 'water is H2O'. Just as 'water' and 'H2O' rigidly identify in all possible worlds such that 'water is H2O' is a necessary identity statement, so do 'God' and 'the Father of Christ' rigidly designate in all possible worlds such that there is no world where the identity 'God is the Father of Christ' does not hold. In the same way it might seem counterintuitive the water must be H2O, so does it seem counterintuitive to hold that God must be the Father of Christ. But the counterintuitivity abates when one realizes that in one cannot meaningfully claim that 'water is not H2O' because then water would, of course, not be water. The same is true of God.

The upshot of all of this is that if one is to think about the essence of God at all, this essence is not going to be found in filling in 'that which none greater can be thought'. (This God would be pretty average anyway in ontologically impoverished worlds.) Rather, God's essence is to be the Father of Jesus the Christ. Now making this identification does not compromise the potentia dei absoluta because the Triune God could not have not been identified as the Father of Christ. If God is triune, then not being the Father of Christ is not an option in any possible world.

This God that is essentially Triune is not reidentifiable by a description or a cluster of concepts applied from world to world. This God is ontologically prior to description, because all description presupposes the conceptual machinery of this world and cannot describe or apply to the Being of God in God's self, that Being that is within God's power alone, a power that extends beyond the language and categories humans have to think it.

Experience of the hidden God presupposes that humans can refer to such a God. Understanding 'God' as a rigid designator makes such reference possible.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Identity and God

We often make identity statements where those things seemingly identified could have existed without being so identified. A putative example is 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star'. Presumably the identity here is contingent; while it is true that 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star' pick out the same object, this is only contingently so. Presumably, there are possible worlds where 'Morning Star' picks out another object than Venus, and thus cannot be a co-referential expression with 'Evening Star'.

As is well-known, Saul Kripke argued four decades ago that we must in situations like this disentangle the relevant epistemic, metaphysical and semantic notions. Starting from the simple metaphysical and logical truth that identity is reflexive - - each and ever object and each and every term is identical to itself - - he argued that necessity applies to identity in the nature of the case. Each thing that is is necessarily identical to itself. I can imagine no possible word in which an object is not itself. I can not imagine a kind of thing not being the kind of thing it is, and I cannot imagine an individual thing not being the individual thing that it is.

Famously, Kripke argued that terms are "initially baptized" such as to apply to objects. Sometimes realization of this baptism takes time. 'Morning Star' was baptized to apply to the object in the sky that turned out to be Venus. The same is the case with "Evening Star'. So the truth of 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star" has the same logical and metaphysical status as the truth 'Venus is Venus'. Because of this, the two statements have the same modality; both statements are necessary.

Kripke terms words that pick out the same object in all possible worlds "rigid designators." Names are, accordingly, rigid designators. This is true of proper names like 'Hesperus' as well as common names like 'heat' or 'mean molecular kinetic energy'. Because 'heat' rigidly designates the same objective state of affairs as 'mean molecular kinetic motion', the statement that 'heat is mean molecular kinetic energy' has the same modal status as the statement 'the state of affairs designated both by 'heat' and 'mean molecular kinetic motion' is identical to itself'. While 'heat is mean molecular kinetic energy' is true in all possible worlds, it is not true that P's sensation of heat is identical to mean moleuclar kinetic energy. How heat is sensed is merely a contingent matter. Heat could have been sensed in such a way as not to feel hot, to feel loud, or not to be felt at all. Sensing by contingent beings does not change the objective reality of heat, or the objective fact that it is just mean molecular kinetic motion.

Kripke argues quite plausibly that if theoretical reductions like 'heat is mean molecular kinetic energy' are necessarily identical, if they are identical at all, then any putative theoretical reduction of pain to a particular brain state would involve a necessary, not merely contingent identity statement. Pain of type x would be thus be necessarily identical to neurophysiological actualization of type C. Moreover, it would seem, that the tokening of type x would be necessarily identical to the tokening of type C. Because the instantiation of the pain state x essentially involves its sensation, identities between pain and brain states are disanalogous to other kinds of theoretical identities. Whereas one can distinguish the sensation of heat from heat, one cannot distinguish the sensation of pain from pain. While it is a contingent fact that the sensation of heat has been correlated with heat by human percipients, there is no possibility of any contingency between the sensation of pain and pain. While the seeming contingency of statements like 'heat is mean molecular kinetic motion' can be explained by the fact that heat and the sensation of heat are only contingently correlated, there is no analogous method allowing identification of pain and the sensation of pain. In sum, to say that 'pain x' is brain-state y' is to utter a statement that we have no explanation whatsoever of how we could have failed to know it!

The question for the theologian is, of course, is the term 'God' a definite description like 'the inventor of bifocals' and thus something that picks out different objects in different worlds, or is 'God' a rigid designator? Do we not want to say that 'God' must be distinguished from our experience of God and surely the conceptual machinery we employ in picking out God? Has not the tradition's emphasis on the incomprehensibility of God presupposed that we are yet talking about something even when we have only a very inadequate conception of what it is that we are talking about?

It seems that we must perhaps claim an initial baptism of 'God' with that being who did a number of salvific things for His people, including being the Father of Jesus the Christ. Making this identification rigidly means that 'God is the Father of Jesus the Christ' is necessarily true in the same way the 'Morning Star is the Evening Star' is necessarily true. The question of human experience of God, and even the human conceptual apparatus to identify God - - I am thinking here about 'that which none greater can be thought' - - is a question that involves contingency. It is perhaps contingently true that 'God is that which none greater can be thought'. It is perhaps necessarily true that 'God is the Father of Jesus the Christ'. This is an interesting way to think about old terrain that all of us have felt has been well-established for a very long time indeed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On the Existence of God

One can talk about many things without claiming that those things exist. For instance, one can speak about imagined things (e.g., unicorns), fictitious characters (e.g, Sherlock Holmes), or even theoretical entities (e.g., charmed quarks). One can also talk about things that exist, but not in the way we might say other things exist (e.g., the set of all triples, the average American taxpayer, or the spirit of the Renaissance.)

In theology, it has become quite common to speak about God, or the being of God, without claiming that there is a being, God, that is. Theologians are quite adept, as it turns out, in talking about God - - even if they are not always able to specify what exactly they are speaking about in such talking. This has been true of philosophers as well, and was clearly true of that philosopher who in many ways set the stage for modern philosophy, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

It is clearly true that the secondary literature has been divided on whether or not Hobbes believed that God exists. While some see him as a defender of Orthodox Christianity, others find him to be the consummate atheist. In reading Hobbes, one often wonders if many doing constructive work in theology would actually disagree with much of what he says.

Like many theologians, Hobbes admits that theology deals with things "outside philosophy" and thus with things outside the realm of causal explanation. Moreover, he claims repeatedly that of such a God, we can have no conception, for the only way to have a conception of a thing is to first have empirical impressions of it, impressions from which there is a decaying sense of imagination, and upon which conception is built.

As with many theologians, Hobbes believes that supposed revelatory experience is not caused by an divine object. In fact, in The Leviathan he seemingly grants no possibility that such visionary experience can be in principle veridical of something external to the experiencer. Speaking of that to which the name 'religion' applies, Hobbes writes:

"'Fear' of power invisible, feigned by the mind or imagined from tales publicly allowed, [is called] 'religion', not allowed, 'superstition'. "

He points out that dreams in stressful circumstances, when one is sleeping briefly, are visions - - whether they be visions of ghosts, goblins, or God. Hobbes further writes:

"To say he [God] hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say that he dreamed God spake to him, which is not of force to win belief from any man that knows dreams are for the most part natural and may proceed from former thoughts … To say he hath seen a vision, or heard a voice, is to say that he hath dreamed between sleeping and waking; for in such a manner a man doth many times naturally take his dream for a vision, as not having well observed his own slumbering" (Leviathan 32.6).

The important point, of course, is that Hobbes is offering a natural causal explanation for the existence of putative divine encounter. The supposed vision is, at root, the causal effect of antecedent and concurrent mechanical motions. While there could still be a God that one's putative knowledge could be about, this supposed act of knowing can trace no causal sequence back to an object that the supposed knowing purports to be about.

There could also be a God, even though Hobbes gives solid grounds upon which to base a causal story of why men and women are religious. In Leviathan Chapter XII (On Religion), Hobbes makes the following claims:
  1. Human beings are naturally inquisitive into the causes of things.
  2. We naturally assume something like the principle of sufficient reason, for anything that is, there must be some cause why that thing is.
  3. But humans cannot discern what are the causes of those most important things of life, thus they concoct such causes of them "as their fancy suggests," or as they find that other men and women suggest, who are deemed to be "wiser than [they] themselves."
  4. Men and women are thus in a state of perpetual anxiety in trying to figure a way to avoid the evils (that which they do not desire), and acquire goods (that which they do desire).
  5. The fear that men and women have because of their ignorance of the causes of things has driven them to embrace the ultimate object of fear: God.
  6. However, in Christianity it has not just been fear that has driven human beings to God, but also the desire to know the causes of "natural bodies, their virtues and operations." This has driven men and women to assert that "there must be . . . one first mover, that is, a first and an eternal cause of all things, which is that which men mean by the name of 'God'. . .
  7. The "spirit incorporeal" that human beings claim as the cause of things, about that they can form no image. The very incomprehensibility of the notion has led them not to reject the notion as unintelligible, but rather to worship it.
  8. This incorporeal substance, which men and women cannot think, has subsequently been borrowed in conceiving their own souls.
  9. Religion has emerged because of natural human ignorance of what causes things most important to human beings, from devotion to what is ultimately feared, and from a natural tendency to project causal connection improperly upon the universe, a projection that gives rise to putative prognostication.
While natural science explains and predicts quotidian phenomena properly and rightly, religion explains and predicts the most important and significant phenomena of human life improperly, and wrongly.

I have labored a bit to present Hobbes' views simply because they are not something that many theologians would reject, though they may not be comfortable in speaking as forthrightly as Hobbes. Theologians often begin their work not with a rejection of the prophets of post-modernity (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), but with a tacit acceptance of their central argument. Human beings project the notion of God on the cosmos in order to buttress themselves in the face of their radical ontological insecurities. The radical contingency of human existence leads humans to search for religion as a way to either deny or cover-up this basic existential insecurity. Constructive theologians then move to embrace an assertion of God consistent with an underlying commitment to the causal closure of the physical, to the assertion that for all x, if x is a natural event, then there was some y, such that y is a natural event causing y, and that for all natural events x, if x is to cause any other event, that event caused must itself be a natural event.

I think that commitment to an underlying naturalism while yet espousing the power of the Word to save and transform is finally a commitment to an unintelligible intellectual position. It may be that Hobbes was no more bloated in his ontological inventory of the divine than many contemporary theological thinkers. Perhaps he just was more honest.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Certain Confusions Concerning Faith

To the question, "How do I know that my Redeemer lives?" some facilely respond "by faith." But what is this "by faith" whereby they know that there Redeemer lives? This is a question perhaps we have not explored deeply enough - - or at least not deeply enough in those areas which are by nature rather deep.

Lamentably, those responding to the question often make a fundamental kind of error, somehow believing that faith itself forms some perceptual-revelatory content whereby they are put in touch with the objectivity of the Word. The Word is imagined to be a content for thinking, willing, and doing, a content that faith somehow displays. Lutherans, of course, have always stressed the externality of the Word over and against its subjective appropriation. Because the Lutheran theological tradition has thematized externality, one would think it difficult were it to cast its eyes upon those having faith, were it to look upon the contour of faith rather than what faith is about. Clearly, for Lutherans, the reification of faith must be averted.

For this reason, believe, is perhaps helpful to think of faith adverbially. Like the adverbial theory of perception, an adverbial theory of faith would understand its subject as a way of being given, rather than as a content of givenness. In order to see this, let us review the distinction between the phenomenological experience of the subject's sense-data, and the way that the subject might know objects in the world.

Classically, sense-datum theorists claimed that there was something definite that was known perceptually, a phenomenological content that then could be judged as to how it related to the world. Accordingly, the world is conceived to have a definiteness to which the sense datum is related. Sometimes called an "act-object" theory of perception, the problem easily became how how to connect the givenness of the object of the act of givenness to the external world. It seems, in fact, that a type of perceptual dualism can easily arise, a dualism that holds between the sense-datum objects, and the putative mind-independent objects somehow causing them.

Adverbial theorists, however, take another avenue entirely. Instead of claiming that there are mind-dependent sense-datum objects interposed between the act of perception and the mind-independent external order, the adverbial theory declares that perception is of the external world, and that the thing putatively experienced, according to the sense-datum view, is merely a way in which the mind-independent world is experienced. It is not the experience of X that is present for an act of cognition or perception, but that the act of cognition or perception is a way of experiencing the world in a X-ly fashion.

An example might be helpful. According to a sense-datum theory, I can be given a red spot - - whether or not there is such a spot in the world. What appears to me is a red spot. The adverbial theory, alternatively, claims that I am experiencing the external world in a red-spottedly way, that is to say, I am being appeared to red-spottedly. While the theory successively opposes ontologizing perceptual content, it unfortunately does not adequately deal with the what exactly it is to be appeared to red-spottedly. While there is now no mystery how to get to the mind-independent world from an act of consciousness, there is great mystery in knowing precisely what the act of consciousness is by which one knows the world.

While neither the sense-datum and adverbial theories are cutting-edge these days in the philosophy of perception. their existence is useful for thinking through the nature of faith.

One might claim that faith provides a content in being "interposed" between the Word grasped and the subject grasping the Word. Accordingly, faith has a content that can be encountered, a content present to the subject that is in some way "caused" by the Word. Just as the mind-independent external object causes the putative sense-datum that is itself the object of the act of percepient's perceptual act, so too does the Word cause the content of faith, a content that is itself the object of the believer's act. Accordingly, there is an ontological priority to the Word over what the Word creates: the believer's faith. On this view, faith is made a substance, it is ontologized to become a thing existing between the believer and the Word.

But Lutherans would do best not to go down this track. Instead, it is far better to think of faith as a "way-of-being" the believer, as the way that Word is grasped by the believer. The Word is not available to us as a perceptual/conceptual content of the act of the believer's consciousness, but rather we are appeared to Word-ly. Faith is not an apprehension of the Word, but rather the Word's apprehension in us. Through faith we are appeared to Word-ly. Our experience of the Word is not a state in us that we can know, but rather is that by which the Word is itself known. Faith is not a theological reality, but the way in which theological reality is grasped. Accordingly, we are justified by grace not because of faith, but because our justification by grace happens faithfully. We are justified propter Christum, not propter fidem - - less anyone should grow confused.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Identity and the Mind/Body Problem

For a time 50 years ago the contingent identity thesis was all the rage in the philosophy of mind. The idea was simple. While mental terms and physical terms (brain language) did not mean the same thing, mental and brain language could still refer to the same thing. Just as 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star' mean something different - - they have different modes of presentation according to Frege - - and yet nonetheless refer to the same object Venus, so could a mental term (e.g., 'headache') and a brain term (e.g., 'C-fiber stimulation of such-and-such a variety) mean something quite different, yet refer to the same physical state of affairs. The idea was that just as there are possible worlds where water is not H2O, there are possible worlds where pain is not C-fiber stimulation. (This world is apparently the actual world. I use 'C-fiber stimulation' here because this is what was used in the literature.)

According to the contingent identity thesis, as I read it, there must be some criterion of trans-world individuation for, respectively, water, lightning, and pain states that does not include, respectively, H2O, electrical discharge, and brain states. One is left to puzzle out exactly what this might be, the contour of the "is of definition," but this much is clear: If it only happens to be the case that water is H2O, then being H2O is only accidental to water. There must be something about water that allows projection across possible worlds, something that makes water water in all of these worlds --whether or not these worlds even have molecules at all. A fortiori, there must be something about the phenomenological state of pain that makes pain pain, regardless of how that pain is realized in neurostates - - or even if it is realized in neurostates. (I can clearly make sense of the notion of an angel being in pain, yet angels by their nature are incorporeal, and thus could not have brain states at all.)

The contingent identity thesis seemed to be committed to a Lockian view of secondary qualities. Heat is whatever is in the object that, in the presence of a suitable percipient, would cause the sensation of heat in the subject. The thesis thus presupposes a distinction between heat, the experience of heat, and the atomic facts which are identical to the heat in the object. The important point here is that heat is an objective property; its criterion of transworld individuation is not subjective, but rather an objective fact about the thing which has the power to produce an experience of an appropriate kind in the subject. On this view, heat just is that power in the object capable of producing the sensation of heat in the subject, and it is this power that is contingently identical to mean molecular kinetic energy.

This view rather nicely deflated phenomenological ontology, according to its advocates; the experience of heat was not a thing that was being experienced, but rather the experiencing of the thing. Adherance to the adverbial theory of perception was celebrated, for one did not wish to reify phenomenological content, but rather to speak about the thing that was experienced phenomenologically. Heat is in the thing, and the phenomenon of heat is just my experiencing of heat in such-and-such a phenomenological way.

The problem was, of course, what to do with putative phenomenological objects that seemed to have being apart from any external situation. What about an after-image? If I see a green after-image, I am not seeing that power in the object capable of producing an experience in me of a particular type, but rather am just seemingly experiencing the phenomenological object itself. The question is this: What is the being of an after-image? The answer that Smart and Place gave was that an after-image just is a brain process of a certain way. A green after-image is the experience of something that would be normally associated with the experience of a green object. Green, like heat, is a power in the thing which can produce an experience in us. A green after-image is the experience normally associated with the presence of a green object.

The problem with the contingent identity thesis, among other things, was and is that there are no contingent identities. As Saul Kripke argued so forcefully in Naming and Necessity, all identities are necessary. If a =b, then a just does not happen to be b, a is b. There are no possible worlds in which a thing is not identical to itself. If the Morning Star is the Evening Star, and both 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star' designate Venus, then because 'Venus = Venus' and there is no possibility that 'Venus is not Venus', then 'Morning Star is Evening Star' is true in all possible worlds. The idea here is that names and expressions form rigid designators. Transworld identification is not done on the basis conceptual content, but by the initial baptism of the name to the thing. Once we discover that the Morning Star = Venus = the Evening Star, then we cannot think the Morning Star not being the Evening Star, because to think such a thing is not to think of the Morning Star at all. (It would be to think of something very much like the Morning Star' except for it not being the Evening Star.)

According to Kripke the apparent contingency of 'heat = mean molecular kinetic energy' is due to the fact that we think that it could have been otherwise. We did not know the heat is mean molecular kinetic energy so we naturally think there are possible worlds in which it is not. But obviously, if this is what heat is, then heat could not have been something other than mean molecular kinetic energy. This is not an example of what Place called the "is of constitution," but rather of what he called the "is of definition." The human race simply did not know for most of its history what heat was, but that does not mean that it was somehow not necessary that heat was mean molecular kinetic energy. One's epistemic limitations with respect to necessary truths do not infect the modal status of those truths.

Kripke thus distinguishes, like the materialists, from among the heat, the molecular realization of the heat and the experience of heat. There are qualitatively indistinct experiences that are experiences of different things. The contingency comes in the relationship between the percipient and the thing with heat, not in the relationship between heat and what heat ultimately is. Similarly, green just is a certain range in the electromagnetic wave spectrum, although we might have an experience of that which is qualitatively indistinct from it but not yet be an experience of green. (Presumably, this is the experience of a green after-image.)

What Kripke forcefully points out, however, is that the materialists are simply wrong if they believe that a mental state just is a brain state. The mental state of experiencing green cannot simply be a brain state as they argued, for there is a fundamental disanalogy between the example of 'lightning is an electrical discharge' and 'pain is C-fiber stimulation of such-and-such variety. In the first we can distinguish the lightning, the electrical discharge and are experience of lightning. There is a contingency between the experience of lightning and the lightning that just is not present between the pain and the experience of pain. If the lightning is necessarily identical to electrical discharge, our explanation for not knowing that is our failure to have gotten clear on whether our experience of lightning was actually of lightning. If we have the presence of lightning, we have the presence of electrical discharge in all possible worlds. The explanation of why we did not always know this, is that we were not clear on the identification of lightning.

This explanation is not, as Kripke points out, available to the one seeking to identify pain with C-fiber stimulation. The reason for this is that there is no meaningful distinction between pain and our experience of pain. If pain is necessarily C-fiber stimulation, then we have no way to explain the apparent contingency between pain and such stimulation. While we can imagine possible worlds in which we could have an experience of heat that is not mean molecular kinetic energy - - because our experience of heat is turns out not to be of heat - - we cannot imagine possible worlds in which we have an experience of pain that is not mean molecular kinetic energy. We accordingly should not be able to entertain the possibility of types or tokens of mental states that are not types or tokens of physical states and, alternatively, types or tokens of brain states that are not types or token of mental states. But we can, as Descartes has shown us, easily think the possibility. If the only identity available between mental states and brain states is necessary identity, then it seems that Descartes' argument has new legs.

Start from the indiscernibility of identicals, the assertion that anything identical to itself has all properties in common. If pain states and brain states do not have all properties in common - - do they have anything in common except temporal position? - - then they simply can't be the same thing. If there is no possiblity that the terms can mean something different yet be the same thing, then there is no possibility that the mental and the physical are the same thing.

Now Kripke is not a Cartesian substance dualist, and he wants very much to protect himself from the application of such an appellation. However, it is true that his work on the nature of identity continues to give ammunition to those uneasy with facilely naturalizing the mind. This is especially true when it comes to the qualia of the mental, the raw feels of color and pain experience. How can it be true that pain is identical to some brain state or other, if the identity for the person is necessary? How finally does the intuitive counterfactual that "I could experience this even after death" get answered if the 'this experienced' is supposed finally to be necessarily identical to some brain state or other? This question remains, and it is not without theological significance.

There is no reason why Lutheran theology should not be interested in such questions as these. I continue to believe that tacit philosophical assumptions must be coaxed out and explored, if theology is profitably to address the questions of the contemporary intellectual horizon. I can see no more pressing question than that of the ontological status of mind.