Saturday, March 11, 2017

Musings on Causality, Divinity and Resurrection

It took a very long time before I could see things clearly.  

Growing up, I contemplated both God and science.   They always seemed in tension.  It did not help, of course, that my eighth grade confirmation pastor made me recite Luther's explanation to the First Article in from of the church with the prefix added, "In defiance of the theory of evolution, I believe that God has created me and all creatures . . . "

Although I did not know it at the time, I was already struggling with some pretty deep issues in the logic of explanation.   If one could explain why something was the case by pointing to laws and antecedent physical events and processes, what exactly was there left for God to do?  If I explained x both by divine intentionality D and some set of physical events E coupled with physical laws L, then in what sense is D, or perhaps E and L superfluous?  If x would not have happened without D, then surely E and L cannot form a complete explanation of x.   But E and L do form a complete explanation of x, therefore by modus tollens, x would have happened without D, and thus D is causally irrelevant.

The general problem is one of causal overdetermination, and confronts us as well in the philosophy of mind.  If mental event M1 explains M2, and M1 is physically realized by a set of brain events P1, and P1 causes a set of brain events P2, and P2 is the physical realization of M2, then in what sense is M1 qua M1 -- that is, M1 in so far as it is M1 -- causally efficacious in producing M2?  Does not the mental become merely epiphenomenal on neurophysiology, a "wheel idly turning" (Wittgenstein) as it were?  Is this not clearly a situation in which mental explanation fails to articulate the deepest causal map of the universe, and thus is in principle reducible to brain explanation or, better yet, can be eliminated in favor of the latter?

Consider the healing of Mary from stage four liver cancer.  This event -- let's call it m -- is supposedly effected by God's intentionality and power D.  If God healed Mary, then clearly D causally produces m.  But Mary's healing is physically realized as some set of micro-physical actualizations S.   While there was once a time -- e.g., in pre-physicalist ages -- when one might have said that D causally produces S without means, that option is not available to most people today.   Our time assumes the principle of the causal closure of the physical,  for each and every physical event p, there is some set of physical events E that causally produces p, and for each and every physical event p, p cannot and does not produce events that are not physical.  But if D does not produce m without means, then there is some set of physical events that is the physical realization of D such that these events cause m.  

It has been axiomatic in theology since the late Enlightenment to conceive God-talk non-causally.   What I mean by this, is that the giving of an interpretation to theological language such as 'God creates the universe' does not involve one in the drawing of a causal relation across the disparate ontological domains of supernature and nature.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America slogan, "God's work, our hands," nicely captures the situation:  Divine agency is physically realizable!   God's working of Y is realizable through the means of some set of individuals P acting in particular ways -- let's say that the set of individuals P instantiates a complex set of relations Q.   Thus, when P instantiates Q -- or perhaps when P acts Q-ly -- then Y obtains.   But the question is obvious: How is Y qua Y a divine act when it is physically realizable as P acting Q-ly?   More simply put, how is divine agency possible in means, when causal explanations in terms of the means is sufficient?   Do we not have a case of causal overdetermination here when allowing the divine explanation to track alongside the physical?  

The solution to all of this is to offer a model of theological language in which prima facie causal terms are given a non-causal analysis.  This worked very well in ages dominated by idealist pre-suppositions.  Accordingly, 'God creates' is a way of talking about some reality deeper than the causal.  Perhaps there is a reality of "Being-itself" that is deeper than the realm of particular beings, a realm that is somehow more profound than the causal, an ontological depth of being presupposed by the ontic structure of being in which beings are causally related to other beings.  Maybe although causal talk here is in some sense misapplied, the language of the causal somehow illuminates the depth dimension of the human such that the language is nonetheless theologically vindicated.  Thus, while God does not really cause the bringing about of Mary's healing, the saying of 'God healed Mary' does illuminate or make sense out of one's existential situation and the seeming mystery of grace, the getting of that which one is ultimately not earned or deserved.   Saying that 'God healed Mary' seems to say more than there is some set of physical events that occurred -- though they cannot be fully specified -- that when instantiated brought about some set of physical events in Mary such that the term 'healed' could be applied to her.

One might, of course, complain that my concerns with 'God heals Mary' are somehow merely a problem for the philosopher.  While philosophers are concerned with semantics, the meaning of terms and the truth-values of the propositions comprised by them, semantics is not a problem for the believer reading the Bible.  Why allow the abstractions of fundamental theology (proto-theology), a theology that is most immediately relatable to First Article concerns, to transgress upon the hallowed domain of Christology and the proclamation of Christ's life giving death and resurrection?   Why not simply preach Christ and let semantics take care of itself?

Imagine listenting to preacher Pete proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead and that because of this the future has been conquered and that salvation is at hand.   One could, I suppose, simply listen to Pete and not think deeply about what his pronouncements mean and what the truth-conditions of the propositions he utters are.  (The truth-conditions of a proposition are those which must obtain in order for the proposition to be true.)  One might somehow be able to say, "OK, I don't know exactly what Pete's meaning when he talks of Christ's resurrection, but I will regard the resurrection to be true."  But this strategy does not work well when Molly asks what is meant by 'resurrection'.   At this point, one must either give some truth-condition for 'Christ is resurrected', or simply say that one does not know.  But if the latter, then Molly will say, "If you don't know what is meant by 'Christ is resurrected', then you don't know what it would mean for Christ not to be resurrected, and if you don't know that, then clearly to say "'Christ is resurrected' is true" is to say nothing at all."

To this, one simply has to change the subject.   While one might hope that one is meaning something even if one is not sure what one is meaning, there is no basis for the hope: Without knowing precisely what situation must obtain for 'Christ is resurrected' to be false, one knows not what 'Christ is resurrected' means.  Therefore, despite emotions to the contrary, to be told 'Christ is resurrected' is not to be told anything in particular -- and thus a fortiori not anything at all.  Sometimes for the sake of the Gospel one must say things as they are.  What is at stake is too important to do otherwise.

In the early days of Christianity, disciples knew that Christ's resurrection was tied to an empty tomb.  'Christ is resurrected' is false if the tomb is not empty.  The assertion had falsifiability conditions.   While the tomb being empty is not sufficient for Christ's resurrection, it is nonetheless necessary for it.  Christ's resurrection thus had a physical realization, and because that resurrection was tied to both the future and salvation, there was a physical dimension to both the future and salvation as well.   Just as Jesus Christ was physically raised from the dead, so too will all who sleep in the Lord be physically resurrected as well.   The coherence of soteriology depended up the physical realization of salvation.  While death was real, Christ's resurrected life could conquer it.

What I am saying is something quite sensible: Christ's physical resurrection and God's causal action producing it was itself understood in the tradition as causally-productive of human salvation.   Human salvation was an effect of divine agency, a causal action drawn across disparate ontological domains.  After all, there is no physical realization of 'Molly is dead' that in itself can causally produce 'Molly is alive'.  While 'God's work' can be realized perhaps in the work of human hands, 'Molly is being raised from the dead' has no known physical realization.

Simply put, while 'God creates the heavens and the earth' can be given a non-causal analysis it is not clear that a similar non-causal strategy can be given for 'God resurrects Jesus'.  The latter connects with the notion of salvation in a very intimate way -- as long as salvation is thought to be physically realized.  Of course, we are living in a time in which people are increasingly thinking that death is not an enemy.  If 'death' and 'life' are taken as descriptions of how we live rather than the fact that we live, then there may come a time when 'Mary's salvation' in no way depends upon the fact that she will live.  That time, which is increasingly our time, does truly recall the time of the Gnostics and their heresies.  

The first step in seeking treatment is realizing that one is sick.  If we do not realize the importance of semantics in theology, we shall not grasp the important theological work that must now be done.  It is irrational to hope for something of which it can be said that one does not know if one has it.