Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Philosophical Commitments of ILT

As some of you know, I have been at work on the problem of building the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) these last ten years.  It has been an amazing journey, and I marvel at times how we have gotten to where we now find ourselves.

It began as an effort to take seriously again both the Bible and the Lutheran Confessional documents -- as collected in the Book of Concord.  "Taking these documents seriously" can mean, however, a great number of things.  One can take these them seriously by unpacking what it is they meant in the context of which they originated -- the objectivist, archeological project -- what it is that they might mean for me today in my life -- the subjectivist, "reader response" approach, or what it is that the documents truly mean in our time: what do they say and claim of us within our current cultural-historical horizon?   The early ILT attempt to articulate general philosophical lenses to read properly Bible, Confessions and tradition are attempts to uncovering this latter kind of meaning.

About fifteen years ago I came to the conviction that theology was in danger of losing its very language.  Consider the situation in the philosophy of mind with beliefs/desire explanations for human behavior.  What is the best explanation for Bob driving to the airport on April 14th?  A standard philosophical response is that Bob drove to the airport on that date because he believed that Mary was coming in on a plane at the appointed time, believed that his driving to the airport would allow him to see Mary, and desired to see Mary.  The philosophical problem with this standard view is simply that there are neuro-realizers of believings and desirings, brain actualizations that are sufficient for these believings and desirings.  But if particular brain actualizations are sufficient for these believings and desirings, then it is plausible to claim that the deepest explanation of Bob driving to the airport is not found in his beliefs or desires, but rather in the particular neuro-events upon which his beliefs and desires metaphysically depend.

So what of the language of beliefs and desires?  What do belief and desire terms name, and how do these named things relate to the neuro-events that putatively realize them?  There are these general options:

  • Belief and desire terms name incorporeal thoughts or mental events which, though ontologically different from their putative neuro-realizers, are nonetheless correlated with these realizers.  One could say either that mental substances are ontologically distinct from neural substances or that mental properties are distinct from neural properties.  Accordingly, one asserts either substance or property dualism
  • While belief and desire terms refer neither to mental events nor physical events, such terms are applied if and only if certain behavior conditions obtain.  Accordingly, there is a semantic tie such that belief B obtains if and only if some set of complex stimulus-response conditionals hold.  Mental terms thus do not name mental events, but are applied on the basis of the instantiation of some set of dispositions to behave.  Since we can analyze the mental in terms of dispositions to behave, belief and desire terms simply mean this dispositional set.  We might call this a semantic reduction of the mental to the behavioral.  
  • Belief and desire terms name types of putative mental properties which obtain just in case some    type of neural properties obtain.  One might say that the mental just is the physical, and claim a type identity between the mental and physical or a reduction of the mental to the physical.  
  • Belief and desire terms name instances of putative mental properties which obtain if some disjunction of physical property instances obtain.  One might claims that there is a token identity between the tokening of a mental property and some tokening (or other) of a physical property. We might speak here of the weak supervenience of the mental onto the physical, or the physical realization of the mental.  The point is that a type of mental event is multiply realizable in some set of physical events or other.  
Of what relevance are these arcane reflections in the philosophy of mind to our topic?  As it turns out, the philosophy of mind discussion has relevance for what it is we are doing when using theological language.  Since the time of Kant, it has been widely assumed that neither the category of substance nor cause can apply to God.  Why?  Because both are pure concepts of the understanding that are involved in the organization of our phenomenal experience.  When we apply substance and cause beyond the bounds of all possible experience, we commit the transcendental subruption and mistake the regulative operations of reason with an actual cognition of a supersensible world.  From the standpoint of Kant's first critique, God cannot be known; we are unjustified in making epistemically-motivated claims of the divine.  While we can in our practical life assume there is a God that rewards our duty-doing with happiness, there are no epistemic grounds that would legitimate this.

For the subsequent theological tradition convinced by Kant's argument, the task was to think God on the other side of critique, that is, one had to make sense somehow of theological language without asserting that God is a substance causally-relatable to other substances.  They had to think God without asserting that God is an entity having causal powers.  There are many trajectories of post-Kantian theological options, the most famous advocated by Schleiermacher, where God is understood as the whence of Das Gefuehl des schlichthinniges Abhaengikeit (the feeling of absolute dependence).  Somehow, thought Schleiermacher, God language could be applied in the expression of our own piety.  (The problem that individuating piety states, such that what might be called "piety conditions" had to be met before the assertion of particular theological language, seemed not deeply to concern him.)

There were reactions, of course, to the adoption in academic theology of "the Kantian paradigm."  For over a century Roman Catholic theology generally dismissed the Kantian starting point as being inimical to theology.  Thomism was realist in its outlook: The divine exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language.  Lutheran thinkers like Harms, Hengstenberg, Loehe, and Vilmar rejected the Kantian paradigm as well, with Hengstenberg trying to repristinate 17th century Lutheran scholasticism.  However, these movements while interesting, did not derail the hegemonic Kantian synthesis in theology.  It was alive an well in the liberal theology of Ritschl, Harnack and Hermann, in the birth of dialectical theology with Barth, Bultmann and Gogarten, in the Luther Renaissance, and in the development of hermeneutical theology generally.

It seems to me that the theological tradition in the North Atlantic countries is more dependent upon 19th century philosophy than is perhaps warranted.  Kantian philosophy is studied in the history of philosophy, but transcendental idealism and neo-Kantianism in general does not currently enjoy heavy subscription within the contemporary philosophical world.  That there is a healthy Kantian influence within the philosophical community is, of course, undoubted.  (One thinks here of Hilary Putnam's "internal realism.")

There is, however, no general consensus against realism -- metaphysical or otherwise -- within the contemporary philosophical discussion.  Realism of various stripes is widely and intensely discussed.  One can be an informed modal realist, a moral realist, an aesthetic realist, a metaphysical realist, an epistemological realist, a mathematical realist, a scientific realist, a naive or critical or representative realist, a semantic realist, a causal realist, or a Platonic or moderate realist.  If all of this is possible, why can one not be an informed theological realist?  The Institute of Lutheran Theology's three philosophical commitments to theological realism, semantic realism and theophysical causation manifest the institution's wariness of an in toto subscription to the Kantian paradigm as a presupposition for its theological work.  It does not specify the determinate contour of the realism thereby asserted.

My own reflections on the current discussion in the philosophy of mind has brought me to the point of thinking that granting to the mental in se causal properties entails that a mental event does not mean a set of dispositional properties, that it cannot be reduced to some set of neural-realizers, and that it cannot either strongly or even weakly supervene on neurophysiological actualizations.   This position betrays my own conviction to a general truth of reductionism: If a domain A is reduced to domain B, then the causal connections within domain A are realized by the causal connections within domain B.  That is to say, the ultimate causal map is drawn within domain B rather than domain A.  In the philosophy of mind, this means that the neural processes realizing mental events are the real causal drivers in mental processes.   While A events can be causally relevant in A-explanations, A events are not causally effective in A-explanations.  (Causal stories can refer to higher-level causal powers without the higher-level events having in se causal powers.  Explanations are intentional, but causes are extensional.)  

So what precisely do these positions in the philosophy of mind have to do with theological realism?

Imagine there exists a divine domain.  What is its ontological status?  Is it something other than nature broadly conceived, that is, the sum total of all physical entities, events, properties and relations?  Most honestly doing theology would answer, "yes."  But is this an affirmation of the existence of a realm beyond nature, a supernatural order?  Most doing theology in the Kantian paradigm would say, "no."  While religion is vitally at the heart of what it is to be human, religious claims, and theological assertions explicating those claims, do not have truth-conditions satisfied by the determinate contour of some supersensible, non-natural reality.  So what options remain?

Analogous to positions in the philosophy of mind, we could assert these:
  • Strictly speaking, theological terms refer neither to divine nor micro-physical entities, properties or events.  Rather, such terms are applied if and only if certain macro states of affairs occur in the world.  Accordingly, there is a semantic tie such that theological proposition P obtains if and only if some set of macro-world dispositions obtain.  Theological terms thus do not name theological events, but are applied on the basis of the instantiation of some set of macro physical dispositions.  Since we can analyze the theological in terms of macro physical dispositions, theological terms simply mean this dispositional set.  We might call this a semantic reduction of the theological to the macro-physical.   (I know of nobody who would actually hold this view, but simply provide it here as a logical possibility.)  
  • Theological terms name types of putative theological properties which obtain just in case a determinate type of physical, psychological, sociological or economic properties obtain.  One might say that the domain of the theological just is the physical, psychological, sociological or economic and claim a type identity between the theological and the physical, psychological, sociological or economic, or a reduction of the theological to the physical, psychological, sociological or economic.  (While I cannot think of a strong reductive program of the theological to the physical, one might claim that Schleiermacher and/or Feuerbach hints that a particular theological term is applied if and only if a determinate psychological state obtains.  Durkheim might be said to strongly reduce the theological to the sociological while Marx does the same for economics.  For a number of reasons, however, the strong reduction of the theological to any of these domains is implausible.)  
  • Theological terms name instances of putative physical, psychological, sociological or economics properties which obtain if some disjunction of physical, psychological, sociological or economic property instances obtain.  One might claim that there is a token identity between the tokening of theological property and some tokening (or other) of a physical, psychological, sociological or economic property. We might speak here of the weak supervenience of the theological onto the physical, psychological, sociological or economic, or the physical, psychological, sociological or economic realization of the theological.  The point is that a type of theological event or property is multiply realizable in some set of lower-level properties.  (This view might better describe the general, though not explicitly or deeply-articulated views of Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Freud, Durkheim and Marx.  While more needs to be said about this, I cannot say it here.)  
But who cares about the critiques of Marx, Freud, and Durkheim about Christianity?  Was I not speaking of the subsequent theological tradition within the Kantian paradigm, the putative "post-Kantian theological options?"  Why am I not dealing explicitly with theologians and not those wanting to "explain away" the religious by showing that it is really about some other domain entirely?  

Perhaps the reason is because their Kantian starting points do not eventuate in a clear theological explication consistent with those starting points.  Talk of God and God's "mighty acts" on a Kantian horizon demands an explication of the semantic possibilities of that talk.  It is not clear what it is that we are referring to if we deny the existence of a domain of divine entities, properties, events and states of affairs.  (We must be referring elliptically to human thinking, willing or doing, for those seem to be the only options of reference.)  We can use the talk (and might even walk the walk) while nonetheless failing to clearly mean much at all.   

The philosophical commitments of ILT assert that the truth-conditions of theological language demand taking seriously the domain of the divine, ascribing to it ontological status, and granting its denizen explicit causal power.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Theoretical Entities and Causality in Theology

In Chapter Seven of De prescriptione haereticorum, Tertullian declares, "What indeed has Athens to to with Jerusalem?  What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?  What between heretics and Christians?"

Tertullian is not saying that philosophy should be silent when it comes to things theological, or that philosophy and theology are about different subject areas, or that philosophy and theology somehow constitute incommensurate forms of discourse.  He is saying that we should reject attempts to produce what he calls, "a mottled Christianity of Platonic, Stoic and dialectic composition."

In the following reflection I take Tertullian's intent to heart.  I will not thereby produce a mottled Christianity.  It does not follow, however, that not producing a mottled Christianity entails that philosophy has nothing to do with theology.  In fact, philosophy has a great deal of relevance for theology, particularly as both disciplines were classically conceived and practiced.  Since the time of Plato, western philosophy has been profoundly concerned with questions of semantics, with the meaning and truth of its expressions.  Since the time of Aristotle, philosophy has been deeply concerned with logic, with entailments, compatibility and modality, that is, with what propositions follow from others, what propositions can be jointly true, and in what way these propositions are true.  From both men philosophy learned about metaphysics; it learned to reflect upon being and to distinguish the different ways that something can be said to be.  Clearly, talk of God presupposes positions in semantics, logic and metaphysics -- even if these views are not explicitly held or asserted.

Consider the following expressions comprising a primitive theological theory:
  1. God is incorporeal
  2. God is eternal 
  3. God created the universe
  4. God has three persons 
  5. God through Christ redeems fallen creation 
For many Christians these expressions are prima facie quite simple and plainly true.  It seems, in fact, that there is no particular problem with their meaning, truth and entailments, or even the being of those entities and properties referred to.   But looks can be deceiving.   

Think of the term 'God' and compare it with other terms you might use, e.g., 'block', 'bird', 'slab', etc.  Notice that while 'block' and 'God' both are nouns and presumably name some entity, the way in which they do so is markedly different.  Presumably, 'block' picks out a member of a class of particular empirical objects, while 'God' does not.  (Specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for a particular object to be a member of the class of blocks turns out to be a surprisingly difficult matter.  As Wittgenstein pointed out, there seems not to be definite criteria of application for the word 'block', but rather the members of the class seem to bear some not quite specifiable "family resemblance" to one another.)  The point is that 'block' does seem to refer to an observable object, while the term 'God' does not seem so to refer.  

Once upon a time in the philosophy of science people believed that there was a pretty clear distinction between observational terms and theoretical terms.  The referents of the first could be encountered through sense perception, while those of the second could not.   Unfortunately, the distinction between the two could not be easily maintained.  In what sense is an object observable to sense perception -- with the naked eye or through an electron telescope?  Are the bubbles in a bubble chamber an observation of a moving electron, or a phenomenal event that through suitable "bridge laws" biconditionally ties to a theoretical electron?  

Perhaps it is not the observational/theoretical distinction that separates 'block' and 'God', but a semantic difference having to do with whether or not the term in question has its meaning determined through the axioms of the theory, that is to say, the meaning of a theoretical term depends upon how that term is incorporated into an overall theory.  In a scientific theory, the laws of the theory are essential for determining the extension of the theory's terms.  This means that the meaning of individual terms in the theory are determined within the theory's overall context.   Holger Andreas writes: 
The contextual theory of meaning, therefore, makes intelligible how students in a scientific discipline and scientists grasp the meaning, or sense, of scientific terms.  On this account, understanding the meaning of a term is knowing how to determine its referent, or extension, at least in part.  (See "Theoretical Terms in Science," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013), Edward N. Zalta, (ed.) URL = <>.  
When thinking of theology, it is clear that it too is a theory of a particular kind with some terms that are quite theoretical and some less so.  For instance, the term 'human being' used in theology seems to make easy reference to the world, while the term 'creation' is more problematic.  The first seemingly has a common reference in theology and sociology.  The word 'creation', however, apparently refers to the universe as such within an overarching theological theory, but makes no reference at all within sociology -- unless it perhaps refers to the manuscript the sociologist is writing.

The term 'God' seems to have meaning within a particular theological theory.  In (1) above, 'God' is predicated by 'incorporeal'.  Is incorporeality "present in" God or "said of" God?   If the former, then the being which is God has the property of not having a body in the actual world, but could have a body in another possible world.  If the latter, then it is not possible that any being which is God could have a body.

From the standpoint of the philosophy of science, 'God' is a theoretical term naming a theoretical entity, a term that seemingly has incorporeality as part of its very meaning.  Just as a bachelor is an unmarried male, so too is God incorporeal.

The same might be said about God's eternity.  Perhaps it is essential for God to be eternal, that is, nothing that is God can fail to be eternal.  If both eternity and incorporeality refer to God, then we might speak of a "conceptual tie or law": For any x, if x is God then x is eternal and incorporeal.  But this is not a paradigmatic bridge law because it is not a biconditional; it does state in addition that for all x if x is eternal and incorporeal, then x is God.  In addition, it does not "bridge" from observation events to the exemplification of a property by a theoretical entity.

If we do not, however, think of theological theory as having any bridge laws in the classic sense, but rather as constituted by a group of propositions having terms, many of which appear in a number of the propositions, we can speak of a term's meaning being a function of the way in which it appears in the other propositions in the theory.  (What is predicated of the term and what the term is predicated of.)  This implicit definition of the term then determines its extension.

Within our primitive theory, (1) and (2) presumably has a distribution of predication that differs from (3), for while predication of 'eternal' and 'incorporeal' in the theory does not allow for an x that is God to be predicated by 'not eternal' or 'corporeal', the x that is God can be predicated by 'creates the universe' or 'does not create the universe' because while one can have as a statement in the theory, 'did not create the universe at time t',  one cannot have 'is not eternal at time t'.  That the truth value of 'creates the universe' differs as a function of its temporal index, while the truth value 'is eternal' does not so differ, clearly shows that 'is eternal' means something quite different than 'creates the universe'.

Now consider the predicate in (4), 'has three persons'.  To say that the x that is God has three persons is quite different than saying that the x that is a small company has three persons.  Why?  Because one rarely if ever would say that an x that is a causal agent -- like in (3) -- could ever have three persons.  While a company could be said to be a group of people exhibiting certain relationships among them, God cannot be said to be a group in any sense, for the three persons having relationships among themselves is the simplicity of the one God.

Proposition (5) asserts that the x that is God causes it to be the case that the domain that God creates is now redeemed.  This analysis of 'redeems the world' can be given a temporal characterization like 'creates the world', thus showing that these terms must have different meanings than terms like 'incorporeal' and 'eternal'.  The phrase 'through Christ' adds further complication because it raises the question of whether 'God redeems' if and only if 'God through Christ redeems', and, if so, what does 'through Christ' add in meaning to 'God'.  To show that 'through Christ' has a different meaning, one needs to show that 'God' and 'God through Christ' cannot be substituted with each other salve veritate throughout the entire theological theory.

What I am suggesting here is neither terribly original nor novel.  I am merely suggesting that it might be instructive to look at theological theory with its theoretical entities in ways similar to how we might look at a physical theory having such entities.  We might do this simply to get clear on the semantics of our theological language.   What exactly is meant by a term appearing within a theological theory of a particular kind over and against a term appearing within a theory of another kind?  Since we have fewer empirical moorings in theology than physics, it is useful perhaps to focus more deeply on what it is we might be meaning when employing language of the first kind.