May 04, 2006

Why Believe the Bible?
Part 1: Plan of Attack

There has been a lot floating around about the doctrine of inerrancy recently. I posted on this subject not long ago, responding to a post at World of Sven and a lengthy series at Chrisendom. Since then, there has been a second World of Sven post, and also a post from the No Kool-Aid Zone about just how important inerrancy is.

This is a problem that I've been thinking seriously about for some time. Actually, I started by asking the question "just why do I believe in the Bible?" then realized that the answer to that question would have a big effect on exactly what I should believe ABOUT the Bible. I do believe that there is good reason to accept Scripture as an authoritative source of divinely revealed truth. I haven't got all the kinks out of the arguments, so I'm hoping for a little help along the way, but what I propose to do is a five (or more?) part series laying out an argument for the authoritative nature of the canonical Christian Scriptures (we'll get into what counts as 'canonical' along the way). This may take me quite a while to get through, as I'm about to start finals, and still have one more term paper to write here in Athens, then will be moving back to the States on the 19th, but by breaking it into so many pieces, I hope to have manageable chunks and be able to keep working on it. Major influences on the arguments I'm going to make are Richard Swinburne's book Revelation (I posted my first response immediately after finishing it here) and a series of teachings on the subject by John Piper, which I downloaded from the Theopedia article on the inerrancy of the Bible. I hope to accumulate more sources along the way. In particular I'm planning on reading Calvin, the Westminster Confession, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy on this subject.

My plan for this series is outlined below. If I change my plan, I will update this post to reflect it. I will also link each post from here.

  • Part 1: Plan of Attack is the post you are reading right now, which outlines how the subject will be pursued.
  • Part 2: The Life and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth will argue in a manner based heavily on Swinburne that there is good reason to suppose that the life and teachings of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth represent a revelation of God to mankind. The canonical gospels will be used in the same way we use any other historical sources, but not assumed to be inerrant. The legitimacy of this usage will be discussed briefly.
  • Part 3: Jesus' Witness to the Hebrew Bible will argue, still treating the gospels as fallible historical sources, that part of the content of Jesus' teaching was that the Hebrew Bible as used in the original Hebrew (NOT the Septuagint, and NOT including the 'Apocrypha or 'deuterocanon') by the Jewish community in Palestine was also a revelation of God. How exactly he treated this revelation will be examined. One of the kinks arises here: it is difficult to determine the specifics of Jesus' theory of revelation, but an argument can be made that he accepted a traditional Jewish view which claims that the Hebrew Bible is divided into three sections (Torah, or Law, Neviim, or Prophets, and Ketuvim, or Writings - whence the ackronym "Tanakh"), each of which possesses a different degree of inspiration. This argument is troubling (for Evangelicals who see the whole Bible as equally inspired) but at this stage, I think, ultimately inconclusive. It may come back to haunt us in part 4 after we've established that the gospels are more than just historical sources and are forced to take every sentence of them more seriously.
  • Part 4: The Church's Witness to the Scriptures will examine the status of the Church as a divinely authorized authoritative herald of the revelation of God to man in Christ, using Jesus' own words in the gospels (still treated as mere historical sources at this point) to back this up. It will then ask just what the Church has witnessed about the Scriptures and the canon. The big problems come along here, as it is extremely difficult to determine just what the Church is and what it has proclaimed. For purposes of the argument, the Church is the continuation of the group Jesus founded when he appointed the apostles to spread his message, but which groups are continuous? The Bible's witness is, of course, decisive, since it tells us how Jesus and the apostles conceived of the Church, and it doesn't tend to support the idea of the Church being some specific hierarchy or institution, but it does support the idea that the Church is manifested in the world in the form of local gatherings of believers. There are groups that have at least SOME historical claim to continuity with the apostles (note that I'm not talking about the doctrine of apostolic succession as it is understood by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches) which have different canons and different views of what it means for a book to be canonical. However, there are certain books that all of the important candidates for this continuity agree are divinely inspired, and we can get a pretty good idea, from the writings of the apostles themselves and from Christian writers close to them what the true Church must mean when it declares a collection of books to be "God-breathed." All in all, I think this historical argument, when it has the others to build on, gets us very close to the view of (small o) orthodox Christianity, as I understand it, but it doesn't quite get us there. I'm hoping others will be able to offer improvements upon it.
  • Part 5: The Argument From Religious Experience will examine religious experiences connected with the Bible, and ask what they might tell us about its inspired status. I will necessarily focus on my own experience, but will try to keep my statements general enough that some other people out there will have had similar experiences so that the argument applies to them as well. This argument can serve as a verification of a canon once we've got it, but I don't think it is much help establishing a canon in the first place, because we can't experiment on each book individually. Of course, there are some exceptions. For instance, the canonicity of the Epistle of Jude is disputed, and I have had 'religious experiences' connected specifically with that book, which helps to make me more certain of its canonicity (though if I had the same experience with a book that, as far as the witness of the Church, was undisputedly NOT part of the canon, it wouldn't be enough for me to even consider the possibility of THAT book being inspired in the way that the canonical books are).

And that's the argument. If you have any suggestions of issues to deal with, directions to take, or sources to read along the way, please let me know. I expect to write part 2 some time in the next two weeks (before I leave Greece), but no promises.

Posted by kpearce at 02:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 17, 2006

Biblical Inerrancy

Update (4/17/2006)
There seem to have been some errors in my post on inerrancy. (How ironic!) I would like to take some steps to correct these.

First: the Council of Nicaea did NOT proclaim that canon of Scripture. This is a widely circulated myth (google it, and see esp. this article). In fact, the canon of Scripture we have was never proclaimed by any ecumenical council, and several books continue to be disputed (see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on "Canon of the New Testament". I'm still working on what this means theologically.

Second: as you can see from the comments, there is some dispute about what is meant by inerrancy as opposed to infallibility. Based on a quick survey, it seems that many dictionaries define the two terms interchangeably, but those that distinguish between them give something infallibility if it is impossible that it should go wrong, and inerrancy if it does not actually go wrong. However, in popular theological discourse (including at least some writings of professional theologians - at any rate, according to Theopedia F.F. Bruce, et al., in their book The Origin of the Bible argue that the Bible could conceivably be infallible without being free of error, implying that inerrancy is in fact the stronger term) the terms are often used in ways similar to my definitions below. This does indeed confuse the issue immensely. Of course, for purposes of this post you'll have to just take these terms the way I've defined them. In the future, I'll be sure not to use them without explicitly deifining them, and work harder to make sure that I'm using them in the most precise and least misleading way possible.

Original Post (4/4/2006)
World of Sven's Theology and Biblical Studies blog is responding (with general agreement) to a six part series at Chrisendom arguing against the inerrancy of Scripture (both writers are believers, and Chris at least self-identifies as an Evangelical). Since I'm coming into this discussion late (after it seems to be over, in fact) I'm going to go through each stage of the argument in turn.

First, let me begin by saying that my view of Scripture is something that I've been thinking long and hard about recently, and I am seriously struggling with the question of why exactly we should believe in it, and what else we should believe as a result. To be more clear, it is quite apparent to me, from experience, that there is something unique, miraculous, supernatural about the text of the Bible, but I am reevaluating exactly how we should understand this. I think the best argument that I have heard for belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture is something along the lines of that given in Richard Swinburne's book, Revelation. I discussed a modified version, which corrected for what I see as ecclesiological errors in Swinburne, some time ago here. The thing that has led me to a serious reevaluation of my views is the fact that this argument necessarily also establishes the authoritative (infallibe?) character of at least some elements of Christian 'tradition.' Certainly it gives at least 'quasi-scriptural status' to the proclamations of the First Council of Nicaea (325 - this is where we have the Canon of Scripture first proclaimed; the Nicene Creed as we have it today was actually proclaimed at a later council, but an early form of it, with less detail on the Church and the Holy Spirit, was proclaimed here), and I'm not at all certain how much else tradition comes along with it. The further forward in history we go, it becomes more and more difficult to identify the proclamation of the true Church, and I'm not even sure what the status of that proclamation is.

Meanwhile, back on inerrancy. Chris seems to understand inerrancy in a fairly weak form, as simply saying that the Bible is always right about everything (see part 1). I would call this something like 'total infallibility,' and oppose it to (1) qualified infallibility, or (2) inerrancy. I understand qualified infallibility to mean that the Bible is never wrong about certain things (e.g. theology, salvation, ethics, etc.) but may be wrong about other things (e.g. history, science, etc.). I understand inerrancy to mean that the Bible (whether we mean the autographs, the Masoretic Text + Textus Receptus, the Septuagint + Textus Receptus, or something else) is exactly letter-perfect what God wanted to say (what, precisely, that means as far as the content and style is questionable, but certainly, from the perspective of the Christian doctrines on the character of God, it will imply total infallibility).

A further distinction, drawn from Swinburne, is needed: if God chooses to state things in terms of false cultural assumptions, he does not err, provided that the false assumptions are part of the form and not part of the content. For instance, when English speakers say "the sun came up," we do not state what is false, despite the fact that the sun remained stationary while the earth rotated. The 'flat earth' implications of certain Scriptural passages can be, in my opinion, dismissed in this way, as can the implications that one thinks with his large intestine or feels with his spleen.

Now, as long as this proviso is taken into account, I'm committed to either inerrancy or total infallibility (I presently accept the former, but wouldn't be terribly upset if some argument persuaded me to switch to the latter), so let me see if I can respond to the objections, at least in some limited form.

First, Chris, part 1: here Chris argues that inerrancy has not always been believed by Christians. He cites Origen and Luther, which isn't going to get him anywhere with me. Both say a lot of heretical things, in my opinion. Calvin certainly believed in inerrancy, or at least total infallibility. (Note: please do not assume from the fact that I think Calvin is a much better theologian than Luther that I am a Calvinist. I am not.) Let's look briefly at what some early Christians say.

First, there is the Apostle Paul. When he refers to 'Scripture' we can assume that he means at least the Hebrew Bible (in the original Hebrew, or in the Septuagint? It isn't clear). There is reason to suppose that he also views Luke as 'Scripture,' from 1 Timothy 5:18 where he begins "For the Scripture says," and proceeds to quote first Deuteronomy 25:4 and then Luke 10:7. I suppose it is possible that Paul and Luke are quoting a common source, but if so, that source is neither the Hebrew Bible nor the Septuagint. Since Paul accepted Luke as Scripture it is likely he accepted some other early Christian writings, but we have no way of knowing which ones. Paul then gives us 2 Timothy 3:16. This verse, however, does not state inerrancy. Rather, it says that Scripture is 'God-breathed' (Gr. theopneustos) and useful for various purposes. What exactly 'God-breathed' means is a difficult question, as the compound is an apparent coinage, and the verb pneo, from which it is compounded, simply means 'breathe' and has no deep spiritual connotations in ordinary Greek. So, all we can really say about Paul is that he believes Scripture and the Holy Spirit (pneuma is indeed derived from pneo) to be intimately related, and he believes Scripture to be sufficient for our spiritual needs.

Second there are the early Patristics. (Note: I'm working from the book A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David Bercott) Clement of Rome refers to some Scriptures being "true utterances of the Holy Spirit." (1.17) Justin Martyr says that the Holy Spirit "descend[ed] from heaven and use[d] these righteous mean as an instrument like a harp or lyre" to reveal the truth of God to us (1.276). This sounds an aweful lot like inerrancy (as opposed to either qualified or total infallibility) to me: the writers of Scripture are tools (presenting themselves willingly) used by God to present his Word. God uses, rather than ignores, their individual characteristics, but nevertheless he brings it about that his Word is written. Again, Athenagoras also uses the image of a musical instrument (2.132-133). The first clear statement of something like 'qualified infallibility' I have in my book is from the Muratorian Fragment (c. 200 AD) which says that although in the various gospels "different matters are taught us," the differences are not important because "all things are related under one imperial Spirit." (5.603) Hippolytus, a western writer of the late 2nd/early 3rd centuries, again uses the musical instrument metaphor (5.204). The Fathers have a great deal to say about Scripture, but what the above shows is that the sort of account of inspiration that leads to inerrancy is NOT new (although the explicit statement of something like inerrancy probably occurs for the first time fairly late). The early Christians (as early as the second century!) believed that the Scriptures were 'God-breathed,' and that this meant that the human writers were instruments with which God played the symphony that is Scripture. Every writer's individual character is used to good effect, but God is nonetheless the musician, the author, and the authority behind the end result.

In part 2, Chris claims that the Bible itself does not directly assert it's own inerrancy. I concede this point (see the above discussion of Paul). However, he never presents an argument for his claim that "it can be conclusively proved that scripture is not inerrant, and the bible's own witness to this is decisive!" He makes this claim again in part 6, but again fails to support it. I would be very interesting to hear this argument in more detail.

In part 3 of Chris's series, he points to a collection of alleged contradictions in Scripture. This is a topic exegetes have dealth with ad nauseam, so I'm not going to try here. Suffice it to say that nearly all of the issues brought up have, in my opinion, acceptable solutions, but the genealogical discrepancies are genuinely troubling to me. If one has strong enough reason to believe in inerrancy then the difficulties can be overcome. However, the solutions are sometimes convoluted enough as to require very strong reasons for inerrancy, so the objection is not something to be ignored.

In part 4, Chris argues that not all of the alleged errors/contradictions can be attributed to scribal mistakes. I concede. However, as I have said, I think that in general other solutions exist.

It seems to have been at this point that Sven jumped in. In Sven's post, two additional objections to inerrancy are brought up:

  1. "Most views of inerrancy and inspiration are a kind of scriptural Apolinarianism." What he means to say is that people often lose sight of the human element in the Scriptures, and the human element of the Scriptures is just as important to a Christian understanding of Scripture as the human element of Christ is to our Christology. I think that this is a legitimate concern, but applies only to sloppy formulations and sloppy thinking about the subject. Most Evangelicals I know affirm that God used the individuating characteristics of the human authors to bring it about that His Word would be written. This is not a doctrinal problem, but more of a 'devotional' problem; that is, it has to do not with the abstract formulations but with the thinking habits certain Christains get into.

  2. "Views of inerrancy do not arise in the biblical texts or the biblical period themselves, they arise from modernist dualism." This is similar to the claim from Chris's part 1 (see above). I think Sven's statements are helpful and bring up important points, but I have to take exception to his way of framing the issue. He begins with this: "By 'modernist dualism' I mean the Enlightenment worldview in which God (if he existed at all) was 'up there' in some transcendent sense whilst human beings remained 'down below', quite separate from the divine dwelling." This view has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. It comes from ancient (pre-Christian) Greek philosophy, and came to the fore in Christian theological disputes in the Greek East in the 14th century, long before the enlightenment. Thomas Aquinas also is 'guilty,' if it is in fact guilt, of this kind of thinking. However, what Sven says next, is that certain forms of inerrancy have been developed in order to 'divinize' Scripture in order to bring the divine to earth. From a Christian perspective this is seen to be ludicrous as soon as it is clearly stated. God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ in whom God is revealed to all, and Scripture is not a replacement for Christ (although depending on our reading of John 1 it may be identical with Christ in some very confusing sense). I do think Sven is right to say that the real revelation of God is Jesus Christ himself, but this view needn't undermine inerrancy.

In part 5, Chris argues that inerrancy promotes a generally low view of Scripture, because we view all revelation as propositional and cease to have a living encounter. I do not think this criticism is valid. The Protestant/Evangelical emphasis on propositional infallibility has quite likely had this effect, but that does not make the doctrine itself flawed. It may well be true that the Bible is propositionally infallible but nevertheless "living and active." The important - even critical - truth that this criticism does point to is that the Bible is not only a repository of propositional truth but rather a living encounter with God.

Finally, in part 6, the podcast, Chris sets forth the doctrine of Scripture that he accepts, which is the proclamation of the Second Vatican Council: "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures." I think Chris understands this passage as a form of what I have called qualified infallibility. He understands the word 'salvation' very broadly to mean not merely a path to heaven, but God's total rescue of mankind from corruption (that is, to include both salvation and sanctification). He also points out that Scripture is (as discussed above) more than merely a repository of propositional truth. He says, "these texts, then, need to be treated as an invitation to trusting belief in that to which they point." He also asserts that the inspiration of Scripture is not simply a statement about how the texts came about, but also has to do with what happens when individuals and communities of believers read the text and God speaks through it. Chris says that a high view of Scripture will mean that we trust that God speaks to us through the text, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we can analyze the Bible scientifically or philosophically by taking it apart piece by piece with our intellect and come to absolute truth in this way. He speaks repeatedly of "the God-givenness of a generally accurate text."

In general, these arguments have not had the effect of shaking my belief in inerrancy. However, I think it is important that we engage some of the issue brought up here. In particular, we must not limit our understanding of Scripture to its propositional value. It is a tool by which God reveals himself to individuals. It is not a dead thing, but the Living Word of God. However, I believe that one of the primary reasons God chose to reveal his Word in written form was to endow the revelation with a degree of obejectivity (see my previous post), and this will fail if it is not reliable as a source of propositional truth (at least as far as I can see). If Chris were right in his characterization of Scripture, it would not be clear to me why it was put in written form at all. Furthermore, I think that Sven and Chris both limit God too much in assuming that inerrancy necessarily eliminates the human element. God is quite capable of working with the human element to bring his Word into the world without error. There is a fine line to be drawn. Scripture is both human and divine in its content, and it is both a source of objective propositional truth and an invitation to and means of experience of the Living God.

Well, I think this post is more than long enough, but it hasn't begun to address the issue. I suppose that means that more posts on this subject will have to follow. I am not presently prepared to present my view as such (it is in flux to too large a degree), but I may soon be ready to publish some speculations. Stay tuned.

Posted by kpearce at 08:56 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

March 02, 2006

Dennett v. Swinburne on the Origin of Religion and the Existence of God

Prospect Magazine has published a series of letters between Richard Swinburne and Daniel Dennett regarding the existence of God and the historical origin of religious belief, following the publication of Dennett's new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett's book argues that an evolutionary explanation for religious belief exists, and that religion can and should be examined empirically by science with the initial presumption of "methodological naturalism" (i.e. we must assume for the sake of argument that God does not exist in order to take on this investigation). Swinburne argues that no such investigation can be adequately undertaken without first determining whether the evidence supports belief in the existence of God and his activity in the world, especially with regard to the formation of religious belief. "Methodological naturalism," Swinburne claims, must first be justified by an argument showing that such a method leads to truth, and this will only be the case if its naturalistic assumptions are, in fact, correct.

Posted by kpearce at 11:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 20, 2006

Libertarianism and Corporations

One of the key problems of strict (non-consequentialist) libertarianism is how the state is to successfully perform its function of protecting citizens from force or fraud without the funding acquired from confiscatory taxation schemes. The problem is that libertarian commitments in the region of political morality do not permit the government to violate the private property rights which individuals have in the hypothetical "state of nature," and in the state of nature individuals own all of their income, not just what's left after taxes. The government exists to enforce these property rights. Robert Nozick believes (see his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia) that the libertarian state is in fact itself a sort of business, the "dominant protective agency" in a given region. He argues from economic principles that an Adam Smith "invisible hand" process will lead to the existence of exactly one protective agency in any given geographic region, where a protective agency is a company whose sole or primary purpose is to enforce the (negative, libertarian) rights of its clients. Of course, such a company's clients must voluntarily choose to pay it for its services - the agency may not coerce this payment from anyone who doesn't wish to purchase its services. Nozick has a lengthy discussion of just what happens when an individual living within the protective agency's bounds chooses not to purchase its services. The short version is that Nozick believes, not implausibly, that the protective agency may prohibit people before the fact from performing "risky procedures" - that is, from doing things that have a high risk of violating the rights of its clients - rather than merely exacting punishment afterward, provided it gives just compensation to the affected party for the disutility it causes him. So, for instance, if we prohibit blind people from driving cars because there is a high probability of them injuring people other than themselves, we must compensate them for any disutility associated with the prohibition. (Of course blind people presumably wouldn't gain much utility from driving cars, since they would probably die.) Now, on the same grounds, the state may prohibit non-citizens from using risky procedures (or procedures it doesn't know to be safe) for determining the guilt or innocence of its clients and subsequently punishing them. For instance, if I am a client of the protective agency and you are not, and someone steals your television and you determine by reading tea leaves or chicken entrails that I am the guilty party and attempt to punish me, the protective agency may prevent you from doing so without first determining whether I am, in fact, guilty, but it must first compensate you for any disutility associated with this prohibition. The most sensible way for the state to do this is to agree that, although you are not its client and do not pay its fees, it will enforce your rights whenever they are violated by its clients (if you are violated by another independent or by a foreigner, you are on your own, unless you decide to pay the protective agencies fee).

Now, this model works, more or less, but there are a number of things that libertarians agree with everyone else are good that it is very difficult to accomplish on this scheme. For instance, it is good to preserve some wildlife habitats, it is good to provide education to everyone, it is good to end racial discrimination, it is good to break up or eliminate abusive monopolies, etc. In general, however, libertarians are quite adamant that these things are not the job of the government, and can be acheived in a "free market" sort of way, if enough people care, and of course they are right. That is, if enough people care, we can set up private foundations to preserve wildlife habitats, we can create private schools with scholarship systems for poor children, etc. Most people are (rightly) skeptical of the claim that this would actually happen, human nature being what it is, but the libertarian responds that the fact that people would not voluntarily give their money to these causes only strengthens his claim that it is wrong to take their money by force.

What I wish to examine here is the question of a particular way in which a libertarian state might justly acquire surplus wealth, and what it might justly do with it. My discussion will center around the concept of the limited liability corporation.

In the state of nature, there are no corporations. The defining feature of a corporation is that it is a "legal fiction" in which a company is treated as if it were a person. In the state of nature, all companies are sole proprietorships, unlimited liability partnerships, or joint-stock corporations (the latter two needing only contracts between the owners to work, no government cooperation is required), and the owner or owners (or perhaps in some cases some or all of the employees) have complete legal responsibility for all actions of the company. There is no distinction between company assets and individual assets. After all, companies are merely figments of our imagination, and the actions are in fact taken by people. (These considerations have the interesting consequence that on the Nozick model we can imagine a protective agency being a sole proprietorship, and thus we in fact have the theoretical possiblity of a libertarian dictatorship! Although he frequently uses the phrase "protective agency," as I have been, Nozick seems to favor the idea of a "protective association" where we all come to one another's aid, and the idea that this might grow into a case where we all put some money into the pot and hire police, etc., with it, which gives us the more familiar libertarian democracy.) Now, the protective agency, or rather, its members, may enter into contracts, as anyone may, on the libertarian understanding. Suppose the protective agency creates a class of contract called Type C contracts, that look like this:

Any group of people jointly owning a company (an unlimited liability partnership or joint-stock corporation) may apply to enter a contract of Type C with the state. Such a group of people will be called "stockholders." Henceforth the state will treat the company as though it were an individual person, giving the company the ability to own property, be a party to contracts, and so forth. The state will hold the company responsible for its actions and contractual obligations, the stockholders having no liability in such matters.

May the libertarian state do this? It seems so. But what about the independents (i.e. those who are not clients of any protective association)? Suppose a corporation violates the rights of an independent. The independent is not a party to the contract forming the corporation, and so from his perspective his rights were violated by an individual - the corporation does not actually exist. The state, however, prohibits him from punishing the individual who violates his rights. The state, in exchange for his observation of the prohibition has agreed to enforce his rights for him. On the other hand, the state has an obligation not to hold the stockholders liable for the corporations actions. So the state must then confiscate the corporation's property, and not the stockholders' individual property, and thus force the corporation to make restitution to the individual. It may be further necessary to punish the corporation somehow. The independent should be satisfied with this provided that (a) his property is restored, or he is justly compensated for the violation of his rights, and (b) the individual who is actually guilty is seen to be punished in the course of the punishment of the corporation.

Now, what if the corporation is unable to make restitution; that is, what if it is bankrupt? The state's contractual obligations prohibit it from exacting punishment on any of the individual stockholders for the corporation's actions; it may not confiscate the stockholders' personal property to pay the corporation's fine, but it must nevertheless see that restitution is made to the independent. Where is the money to come from?

In order to avoid this situation, the state might require, as a term of the contract, that corporations carry liability insurance, which they might purchase from the state (since it is, after all, the state who is required to come up with the money to make restitution to the violated independent), or another corporation, or a private individual (provided the corporation or individual were capable of making the relevant gaurantees). None of this necessarily occurs if the violated individual is a client of the state, because in this case that individual is a party to the contract and has agreed to treat the corporation as a person; thus, from his perspective, he was violated by the corporation, not by an individual, and if the corporation is bankrupted and ceases to exist it is as though the individual who violated him has died, leaving no estate and having no heirs. He cannot justly expect to receive any restitution. Of course, I say necessarily. The state could, and probably would, define the contract with the stockholders, and also its contracts with its individual clients, such that its clients received the same or better treatment, as compared to independents.

What this discussion points to, to me, at any rate, is that it is the state that creates corporations and thus the state may define the contract which corporations must accept in any way it chooses without violating anyone's libertarian rights (provided it keeps its obligations under the contracts it has previously been a party to). Suppose, therefore, that the state says, "in order to enter this contract, the corporation must pay X% of its profit in taxes each year." If people don't like the terms, they will not form corporations. If, however, very large and profitable corporations DO form, the libertarian state - which, you will recall, does nothing other than protect its citizens from force or fraud - may find itself in possession of a great deal of money. Now, since the state is making an offer to potential stockholders of corporations, and can make whatever offer it chooses, it could do lots of other things as well. In an extreme case, it could reserve the right to change the contract whenever and however it saw fit. Presumably no one would sign that contract. Perhaps instead the state would specify that when it makes such changes a limited liability corporation may choose to revert to a joint-stock corporation rather than accept them. If the government changed its offer over time without changing old contracts, it would have the effect of putting corporations formed at different times on different footing, which would have interesting (probably bad) economic effects.

Suppose the government wanted to institute in this way some of the things libertarians complain about most; say, income tax and affiirmative action. Of course, in this case the government wouldn't technically be taxing an individual's income; rather, it would be taxing the corporation on its pay to employees. In the affirmative action case, again, the government would merely say "if you don't want to treat people of various races equitably (according to our definition of equity) don't accept this contract." No one's rights are violated, per se. Most libertarians can be expected to respond with the charge of reverse discrimination, but, of course, the government could just as easily require corporations to treat races unequally. This would be an injustice in some important sense (as would reverse discrimination), but the government would not exceed its authority or violate anyone's libertarian rights. Moreover, we must remember that the government we are discussing is not the titanic state common today, but rather small and limited in power. Presumably if the government enforced unfair hiring practices on corporations, principled people would not form them. Since sole proprietorships would not pay the same kind of additional taxes corporations did, they might be on equal footing. However, if there was a serious social problem, our hypothetical government might try to address it by this sort of means, just as real governments have sometimes begun by enforcing standards on their own hiring practices, rather than on the hiring practices of everyone in their country. I'm not completely convinced one way or another as to whether the government ought to do such things, I'm simply arguing that its doing so would violate no one's libertarian rights.

Now, in addition to the extra power the government has gained by being able to define the agreements which form corporations, the government has gained a great deal of money. Whatever it does with this money, if it behaves just as any group of people is permitted to behave, and it honors its contractual obligations, it will violate no one's rights. The government could enter competition with private businesses in various industries, it could start it's own schools, it could offer scholarships to private schools, and so forth. These would violate no one's libertarian rights. The government could also help the poor, or set up orphanages, or other similar social programs, or depending on exactly how it was constituted it might distribute the surplus back to its clients equally. In the case of the familiar libertarian democracy, the clients of the protective agency would also be joint owners of it, and so any profit it did not reinvest would go to them. As has been previously mentioned, there's no reason on Nozick's system why private ownership of the government would violate anyone's rights. Of course, I think that it would be a very rare individual indeed who could convince people not to opt out of such a government. I think some of the tiny principalities in Europe have extremely popular royal families who might perceivably get away with such a thing.

Of course, if the government used its excess money or its power to define the corporation to do things that someone strongly disagreed with, or if its activities "on the side" caused it to become less effective in performing its primary function as the dominant protective agency, people would begin to opt out in large numbers, and might eventually form a rival protective association, leading to a possible war. (Nozick envisions that one reason the market would lead to a single protective agency in a given area is that if there were more than one they would sometimes disagree on whether a given person was guilty, and they would fight wars as a result, with one side trying to punish him, and the other to protect him. Since the protective agency that most often won battles in a given area would, ipso facto, be better able to enforce rights in that area, it would win in the market as well as on the battlefield, and the lesser agency would go out of business, or be restricted to a different area.) This would result either in the serious diminution, or the complete overthrow of the formerly dominant protective agency.

I suppose that, at bottom, the most important point made by the above considerations is that according to libertarian theories of political morality (at least on the Nozick model), present day governments violate individual rights not because of the way the system is set up per se but, first and foremost, because the individual has no ability to opt out of the system. His options are (a) pay the government to protect him from events such as, say, someone kidnapping him and holding him against his will, or (b) being kidnapped and held against his will (by the government, in prison). In this way, libertarians hold, present day governments are not terribly dissimilar with mobsters who collect "protection" money - if you don't pay for protection, you will need to be protected from the so-called protectors! This, above all, is the nature of the libertarian objection.

Posted by kpearce at 12:50 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 27, 2006

Persons as Events

Over the semester break, I took some time to look at Peter van Inwagen's paper "Materialism and the Psychological-Continuity Account of Personal Identity" (Philosophical Perspectives 11 (1997): 305-319) and, as I realized that I don't have a good candidate for submission to Monday's Philosopher's Carnival, I thought this would be a good time to write down some thoughts that I had in connection with this paper and (very) broadly Lockean "psychological continuity" accounts of personal identity in general.

The aim of van Inwagen's paper is to show that these kind of psychological continuity accounts require the existence of immaterial substances, and so are incompatible materialism. He takes aim at what I see as the primary flaw of contemporary analytic philosophy: the attempt to isolate from one another philosophical issues that are in fact inextricably connected. In this case, this is primarily the attempt separate personal identity from the rest of ontology, which, I agree with van Inwagen, is not a good idea, and is probably nearly impossible.

However, I do think there is a version of the psychological continuity account that IS very nearly ontologically agnostic, and is at least agnostic as to the existence of material and immaterial substance, which is precisely what Locke claims about his theory. I will not spend time here making any arguments that the theory I'm presenting is Locke's (although I think it probably is), but I do want to show that there is a broadly Lockean account here that avoids van Inwagen's argument. This account makes a highly unusual assertion: according to it, persons are not in fact substances but events.

According to any psychological continuity account of personal identity, persons remain the same over time because their mental states bear a certain relationship to one another. In Locke's case, memory is emphasized, but I do not think this is necessary. It would be just as easy to say that a person A existing at time T1 is the same as a person B existing at a later time T2 if and only if B's mental state can be explained by a series of previous mental states leading back to A. This is of course not a rigorous formulation, and cannot handle all objections, but you get the idea. At any rate, the mental state of person B is connected to the mental state of person A in some relevant way, which leads us to assert that they are the same person.

Now, Locke is committed to a theory of what is called relative identity (see van Inwagen's brilliant paper "And Yet There are Not Three Gods, But One" in the collection Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris for a rigorous account of relative identity). Relative identity is the claim that in at least some cases we cannot answer the question of whether A is the same as B without first asking, "The same what?" In particular, Locke thinks that although one being might be simultaneously a material object, a human, and a person, the question of whether it is the same material object, the same human, and the same person may in some conceivable cases have different answers. In the everyday case, it will not be the same material object over time because of the constant intake of food, elimination of waste, sloughing of dead skin cells, etc., that cause it not to be made up of the same matter. It will be the same human over time because it has continuity of organization as a living organism. It will be the same person over time because is has psychological continuity in the form of memory. What is curious about Locke's account is he envisions the case where two entities are compared and turn out to be the same person while NOT being the same substance. This would occur, for instance, if two souls (assuming, for the moment, that souls exist) were to swap memories.

The core of the strangeness of this account comes, I believe, from the fact that we are comparing things that we think of as being substances (persons) based on events that occur within them (mental states). We wouldn't normally do this. Now, perhaps we want to say that the mental state is the collection of properties of the person, and the person's having those properties is an event. This is where van Inwagen's attack comes in, since the materialist (allegedly) cannot say that the person is distinct from his body. Now, I'm not familiar with the particular accounts of materialism van Inwagen attacks here, but it seems to me that the materialist is only committed to saying that the person does not exist as a substance independent of the body. Van Inwagen presents a further attack by pointing out that if the person is identical with the physical body, then whatever is predicated of the person can be predicated of the body. However, if it is possible for persons to switch bodies, this will lead to the breakdown of the transitivity of the (absolute) equality relation. By way of illustration (an illustration different than van Inwagen's) let NBx (where x is a numeric subscript) be the new body at time x, and Px be the person at time x. The transfer occurs at time 2. We have:

NB1 != P1
NB3 = P3
P3 = P1
NB3 = NB1

Thus the equality relation would transitivity. There are some things that can be predicated of the body that cannot be predicated of the person, therefore they are ipso facto not equal, and the person either does not exist or is distinct from the body.

I believe that both of these objections can be escaped, on a reasonable definition of materialism. That is, it may be reasonable to define materialism as the view that only material substances exist, but it is also reasonable to define it as the view that there are no substances other than material ones. This difference is significant, because many ontologies posit that substances are not all that are "real" - events are also real in an important sense. If persons are viewed as complex events consisting of series of psychological states, then they can exist without being identical with any physical objects; they simply need physical objects to "inhere" in. We would say, then, that each mental state is a "time-slice" of a person, a simple event consisting in (according to the materialist) some brain having certain properties. The person is a complex event consisting of a collection of such simple events which are related to each other in some relevant way, such that we say that any one mental event in the collection is "continuous" with all the others. These events need not inhere in the same material object. This could be defined rigorously by making explicit what types of properties are relevant to psychological continuity.

For the record, I do believe this theory of persons and events, although I am not a materialist. I think that it is the best account of what it is we mean by the word person; for the mental states that we speak of in terms of personhood are clearly events and, as Locke's arguments show, what substance they happen in doesn't seem to be relevant. This possibility is completely absent from van Inwagen's paper, and I'm really not entirely sure why.

Posted by kpearce at 11:27 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack