May 02, 2006

"Three Persons, One Substance" - Paradox or Solution?

I seem to have opened quite the can of worms in my post on Church dogma the other day when I said:

There seem to be some clear (to me) cases of Christian dogma that are not obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture. For example, consider the formulation of the trinity as three persons (Greek hupostaseis and/or prosopa, Latin personae) in one substance/essence (Greek ousia, Latin essentia and/or substantia). This type of formulation is extremely common in the Christian tradition, and is derived primarily from the Chalcedonian Creed. However, I don't think we can say that it is obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture; that is, there is no reason to say that someone looking at Scripture by some particular method that did not include granting some authority to tradition would lead many people to come independently to this conclusion. What is in Scripture is this paradox: the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, there is only one God. Any number of formulations of the solution could be compatible with the Scripture, but one in particular is generally believed to be part of Christian dogma.

There were many good responses to this, but the one I want to talk about is these few lines from vangelicmonk:
I would posit that the doctrine of the Trinity of three persons and one substance is not a solution for the paradox, but just a restating of what the paradox is from scripture. I don't think Orthodoxy has gone too far from that. Just a restatement that we mostly accept as mystery.

I think the danger comes to when we do try to explain that mystery. Like modalism where we say that the Father becomes Jesus and then the Holy Spirit. Or JW answer which is Jesus is not God but something else and the H.S. is just a power. In this particular dogma, when the mystery is tried to be solved, it creates problems.

Now let me be perfectly clear here: I absolutely do believe and am convinced that God exists as three co-equal and co-eternal Persons in a single Substance or Essence. It'sjust that I'm not always sure what I mean when I say that, and I've recently had some doubts about where that doctrine comes from. It seems to me, as I said, to be a clear case of Christian dogma, but what do we mean by it? Is it just a restatement of the paradox from Scripture?

As I see it, there are two ways that we can treat this statement. First, we can say something like "we know from Scripture that God is three in one sense, and yet one in another sense; let's call the concept under which he is three 'person' and the concept under which he is one 'substance.'" If we do this, we are doing nothing but restating the paradox from Scripture, as vangelicmonk says. However, we can't be sure that we are using the words 'person' and 'substance' in this context in the same way we use them in other contexts. This is perfectly ok with a lot of Christian thinkers. For instance, Thomas Aquinas thinks that when we speak about God we are always speaking by analogy. So, a Thomist could say some thing like: "when we say that God is three persons in one substance, we mean that there is some concept roughly analogous to the concept of 'person' as we ordinarily use it, such that if we consider God under that concept we will rightly state that he is three, but there is another concept, one roughly analogous to the concept of 'substance' such that if we consider God under it we will rightly say that God is one." (I'm not a Thomist, nor have I studied a lot of Medieval philosophy, so I'm not saying that a Thomist would say precisely that, but merely someone who agrees with Aquinas on this particular point could say that sort of thing.) Now, this makes a good deal of sense. Furthermore, the part where the threeness is analogous to 'person' can indeed be supported, to some degree, in Scripture: the Father and the Son are pictured talking to each other (e.g. in John 17) not in the way we talk to ourselves, but in the way we talk to others, and Jesus seems to speak of the Holy Spirit as though he were at least "roughly analogous" to a person in these latter chapters of John as well. There are other similar examples throughout Scripture. The concept of 'substance' is a much more difficult one; sometimes I'm not even sure I know what a substance (in the metaphysics sense, as opposed to the chemistry sense) is, but we can just go with it for now. So, perhaps we should say that a statement like the one above is a matter of dogma, but there is room for a great deal of disagreement as to just how good the analogies are. This seems like a very defensible position to me.

Alternatively, we could say that when we say that God exists as three Persons in one Substance we mean these words in the same way we mean them whenever we use them rigorously in this kind of metaphysical context (and statements about God are metaphysical statements). This needn't make any particular metaphysical system a matter of dogma (in fact, it had better not), it would simply say that if you are an orthodox Christian and you have a metaphysical system, your metaphysical system had better be able to account for this in its definitions of persons and substance. Now, the Bible doesn't use this kind of language (in fact, it doesn't even use English), so this couldn't possibly come from the Bible, and therefore can't be dogma under the Protestant idea, unless we think that Protestantism has room for saying that a disputable interpretation of Scripture can become dogma due to the authoritative status of the Church (that is, the true spiritual Church, not any particular hierarchy) as an interpreter, provided we realize that the Church continues to be less authoritative than the Bible itself. In this case, we might say that the formulation in English "three Persons, one Substance" was a matter of dogma, since all legitimate Christian communities that speak English affirm this (if, in fact, the broad, sweeping statement I've just made is true). Alternatively, of course, it could be that the Council of Chalcedon is an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, which might make its formulation, in the original Greek, a matter of dogma. I am of the belief that the word choice in the Chalcedonian Creed comes from Aristotle, so I hope eventually to go through Aristotle's Metaphysics and look at how each of the terms is used and see what meaning I can derive from Chalcedon on that basis, but I have no time right now, so let's assume for the sake of argument that the English formulation "three Persons in one Substance," where Person and Substance are used in precisely the same sense as in other metaphysical assertions, is a matter of dogma.

If this is the case, what we will do is proceed with an inquiry into the meaning of these terms by the methodology of analytic metaphysics (or some such) and then apply the results to doctrine. Note that, in this case, what the results have to be is not proscribed by dogma, but merely that if we get our metaphysics right with regard to other persons and substances, then we can apply the same definitions to God. It doesn't say under what circumstances our metaphysics is 'right.'

Now, I have argued previously that persons are in fact events, or, more specifically, connected series of mental states. A common definition of substance in metaphysics is "a center of causal power." Furthermore, I believe that God is atemporal, rather than merely everlasting. If we combine all three of these claims, we can get a very clear picture of God as Trinity: God, we will say, is a single center of causal power, existing in three separate eternal complex mental states. This is roughly analogous (here we go back to analogy) to three minds controlling a single body, but always agreeing on how to move it. God is only one set of causal powers, so it is a metaphysical impossibility that any Person of the Trinity should will anything by himself, without the other two. They must all will in unison. Since they cannot, metaphysically, act other than in unison, only having one set of causal powers, they are a single Being or Substance, but since there are three mental states, there are three Persons.

Now, even this detailed explanation doesn't really solve the mystery, it merely speculates on the meaning of three Persons in one Substance. I hope that it falls within the realm of orthodoxy, because I sort of tentatively accept it, and I would like to think that I am not a heretic, but it is certainly closer to wild speculation than to dogma.

The point that I'm trying to make is this: if God has in fact revealed that he exists as three Persons in one Substance, then he must expect us to understand something by the words 'person' and 'substance' in this context, and we should try to figure out what that is, as I did briefly above. If, on the other hand, God has revealed to us only that he is three in one, and we have simply plugged in the words 'person' and 'substance' as ciphers having no meaning external to the formulation in order to help us talk about it, then we should totally abandon this line of inquiry, because there is no way we can no anything about the internal nature of God apart from revelation. So this gives us basically three possible understandings of the formulation: (1) 'person' and 'substance' carry no external meaning into the formulat and are merely plugged in as a matter of convenience, (2) 'person' and 'substance' carry external meaning only by analogy to their ordinary usage, or (3) 'person' and 'substance' are used within the formulation in the same way they are ordinarily used outside of it. For each of these it is fair to ask whether the formulation is true under it, and also whether it is a matter of dogma under it. Each has problems.

Interpretation (1) can certainly be proven from Scripture, and is therefore certainly true and a matter of Christian dogma. However, if (1) is dogma and neither of the others are, then someone might refuse to say that God was "three Persons in one Substance," on account of the fact that it was misleading since these words had outside usages and we were here using them in ways unrelated to those outside usages. This person might wish instead to say that God was "three Wizboons in one Poobam" or some such, and we could not then consider this person a heretic. Does anyone else think this is a problem?

Interpretation (2) can be supported from Scripture, and I think the 'person' part can probably even be proven. However, I'm not sure the substance part can, but maybe I should ask someone who has a better idea what the heck a metaphysical substance is to figure that out. Besides this, you could still have someone insisting on saying that God was "three Wizboons in one Poobam" be orthodox, he would just have to acknowledge that a wizboon is sort of like a person, and a poobam is sort of like a substance. That actually doesn't seem that problematic to me, on the whole. I think interpretation (2) may be the best alternative.

I don't think interpretation (3) can be proven from Scripture, and the Scriptural support for it is very limited. However, it certainly doesn't contradict Scripture, and it may have the authority of the true Church behind it (though my Protestant ecclesiology makes that very difficult to determine).

So, to all of you who commented on the Church dogma post, and to all of you who didn't, which alternative do you take? Can the problems I've listed be solved, or are they not really problems? Or is there another alternative I'm not seeing?

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March 13, 2006

Blogging Parmenides

I feel the need to point to this post about Parmenides over at Mathetes simply because ... well, because I approve of blogging about Parmenides! The post gives a good overview of Parmenides' argument for the establishment of monism. To which let me add three things:

  1. This is the oldest deductively valid argument in surviving literature.

  2. It is contained in a hexameter poem (written, presumably, in imitation of Homer and Hesiod) which begins with an appeal to divine revelation (a narrative about being carried in a chariot to meet a strange goddess who promises to reveal "the way of truth" and "the way of mortal opinions, in which there is no truth at all").

  3. In addition to becoming the father of logic by being the first to (a) write down a deductively valid argument, and (b) formulate the principle of contradiction, Parmenides also becomes the father of metaphysics (according to me) by being the first person we know of to conceive of the possibility of "representation dualism."

My complements to Kristopher on his impeccable taste in blog subjects.

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January 30, 2006

"Theism and Mechanism in Leibniz"

I've just posted a new paper to my writings page, entitled "Theism and Mechanism in Leibniz." This is a topic that I've discussed quite a bit in the past few months, and this may be the end of it for a while.

An earlier version served as a term paper for Professor Karen Detlefsen's undergraduate seminar on Leibniz at Penn last semester. It has undergone slight revision based on her comments. Please feel free to offer any responses or discussion you have in the comments section of this post. Any revisions made will be documented in the comments here as well.

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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.

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January 07, 2006

Christianity and Aristotelian Metaphysics

In a recent discussion with Suzanne McCarthy, my views were compared to Aristotle's, and I pointed out that I am really more of a Platonist and am often irritated at the continuing dominance of basically Aristotelian metaphysical ideas in Christian philosophy. In this post I will discuss the nature of these Aristotelian metaphysical claims, the manner in which they have been incorporated into Christian thought, and my reasons for objecting to said incorporation.

Before I start, I should note that I am not an expert on Aristotle, so I will be examining only basic points of Aristotelian metaphysics, and relying on interpretations that I take to be fairly uncontroversial. Of course, since I am not an expert, I could also be wrong in taking my interpretations to be uncontroversial. This is a blog discussion, not a research paper.

Aristotle is a "common sense" philosopher. In stark contrast to Plato, his teacher, he is eager to embrace the basic assumptions of his culture, and even searches for truth in facts about the Greek language. (See especially the Categories.) He is responsible for the "subject/predicate" distinction in grammar (that is, the so-called "Aristotelian predicate" which consists of the part of the sentence which is not the subject, as opposed to the "Fregean predicate," which is a somewhat different concept), and he saw this as a window to the way the world works. He claimed that the world consisted of "substances" (the things that can be subjects of sentences) and that these substances have properties. The properties are the things that might be predicated of the substance. That is, in sentences like "I am a philosophy student," we state that some substance ("I") has a particular property (belongs to the class of substances which are philosophy students). Some properties are essential - that is, if they changed the substance would lose its identity and become a different substance. Others are accidental - that is, the substance retains its identity if they change over time. If I was a philosophy student essentially then when I graduated I would become a different person. Since this is not the case, it is safe to say that I am a philosophy student only accidentally. (Although I can assure you that I became a philosophy student quite intentionally and with much effort! "Accidentally" in this context merely means non-essentially.) These essences, that is, collections of properties which define what it is to be something, are logical entities which are instantiated by certain individuals (but, again in contrast to Plato, Aristotle holds that the actual individuals are the "real" things, not the essences).

According to Aristotle, substances have a two-fold nature: they are "form" and "matter." Aristotelian theories that posit this two-fold nature are called hylomorphic theories. Matter, on this view, is the basic "stuff" of the world. "Form" is what gives it its identity as a unique entity. This exists in a sort of hierarchy. For instance, my form is my soul, and my matter is my body. The form of my body is its "vegatative soul," which is the organizing principle that takes care of blood flow, growth, digestion, etc. (but not motion - there is an "animal soul" in between the vegetative and rational souls). The matter of my body is the organs of which is made. Each organ, in turn, has form and matter, and so on.

The school of Medieval Christian philosophers known as the Scholastics were Aristotelians. During this time, Aristotelian metaphysics became a part of Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, this started very early.

The earliest example of which I am aware is the Chalcedonian Declaration of 451 AD. The Greek text of the Creed is available, with some glossary and commentary here, and there is an English translation in the Wikipedia article. This creed contains many technical terms of Aristotelian metaphysics, and by their use becomes dependent on this type of metaphysical theory. For instance, the Creed affirms that Christ is "co-essential [Gr. homoiousion] with the Father according to divinity." The claim is that Christ, considered in terms of his divinity, has the same Aristotelian essence as the Father (more on this later). Next, it claims that he is "co-essential with us according to humanity." Christ, then, instantiates two disparate Aristotelian essences: the essence of divinity and the essence of humanity. This means that he has all the properties one must have to be divine, and also all the properties one must have to be human. Note, however, that I have just stated this in non-Aristotelian language, so thus far we are merely using the apparatus of Aristotelian metaphysics, but have not made ourselves dependent on it.

Later the Creed affirms that Christ exists as two natures (phuseis) united in one person (prosopon) and one substance (hupostasis). In Aristotle, a phusis is "nature as an originating power" (LSJ, s.v. 4.1). prosopon meaning person is a later usage and is not found in Aristotle. (The word literally means "face" and in Aristotle's time the widespread figurative use was for "appearance," but by the time of the New Testament and all the more so in the later time of the Chalcedonian Creed, the word had come to mean "person.") Aristotelian hupostasis is the ontologically fundamental substance, the really real thing. I think a contrast between prosopon and hupostasis is probably intended here, meaning that Christ, despite having two essences and two natures (the latter can, I suppose, be interpreted as saying merely that Christ has both a divine origin as the only begotten of the Father existing from eternity, and a human origin as a man born from the womb of a human woman at a specific moment in history), is united both as to his outward manifestation and as to his fundamental nature.

Still, one need not affirm all of Aristotelian metaphysics to accept the Council of Chalcedon. One need only accept some metaphysical theory on which all of the concepts just mentioned (ousia, phusis, prosopon, and hupostasis) have meaning. This can probably be done, with a bit of finagling, on any theory that accepts the substance/property model of the world, which is so deeply ingrained in most (all?) human languages that it is nearly impossible to think or act without implicitly assuming it, so this is a fairly minimal requirement.

Later on, the Scholastics made good use of Aristotelian language in examining theological questions. For instance, they stated that God's essence includes existence, and so God is identical with his essence, whereas we are merely instantiations of our essence (or essences - there is and always has been some dispute between Aristotelians as to whether there is a single essence of humanity, or a unique essence of every human being or both).

However, the Scholastics and other Medieval theologians and Church leaders also constructed doctrines that depended far more heavily on actually believing the substance of Aristotle's metaphysics than does the Chalcedonian Creed. The most egregious example is the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. In the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent Session 13, Canon 2, a strict definition of orthodoxy is given stating,

If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.

I was unable to find the Latin text of this online (and my Latin is really bad anyway), but the standard explanation of transubstatiation (see, e.g., Wikipedia) seems to be that "substance" here is the Aristotelian hupostasis previously discussed, and the "species" of the bread and wine which remains is the collection of properties associated with the bread and wine, so that the bread and wine takes on the real substance of the body and blood of Christ, displacing the substance of bread and wine entirely. The substances of the body and blood of Christ are apparently able to take on the form of bread and wine without losing their essences. This requires a host (no pun intended) of metaphysical assumptions. For instance, there must be fundamental "substances" of the body and blood of Christ which do not have any observable essential properties. (What are their non-observable essential properties? If they don't have any, in what does their essence consist?) Furthermore, we must believe that it is possible for one substance to transmute into another, which seems to require that there be some kind of basic matter which is independent of the substances, as there might be on a hylomorphic view. This metaphysical picture is getting to be detailed and complicated, and this is only the beginning. Anyone who does not hold such a metaphysical view is implicitly also declared anathema by the Council.

This is my primary objection to the importation of Aristotelian metaphysics to Christian doctrine: a complicated and detailed metaphysical system which is in no way essential to the Christian revelation becomes part of a test of orthodoxy. However, my difficulty accepting it goes further.

Today, Christian philosophers continue to be predominantly Aristotelian. I haven't made an exhaustive statistical survey to show this or anything, so it may be merely that the Christian philosophy I have read is not a representative sample, but I don't think so. For instance, a look at part one of Richard Swinburne's The Christian God shows that Swinburne, one of the dominant figures of Christian philosophy today, retains many metaphysical assumptions from Aristotle. In that book, he does not even discuss any of the objections to them. Furthermore, looking over a few issues of the journal Faith and Philosophy, which is published by the Society of Christian Philosophers, will show that Medieval Aristotelians, especially Thomas Aquinas, receive far more attention than the early moderns, although the latter group was composed almost entirely of Christians.

This is deeply troubling to me for a number of reasons. The first is that it is extremely problematic to allow views to appear to be essential to Christianity when they are not. For instance, think of the number of people who have been turned off to Christianity because they think it means supporting all of the policies of the Republican party, when this in fact has nothing to do with the basic message of faith. This is especially important in light of the fact that modern science requires the rejection of many points of Aristotelianism which to the modern thinker can make a system that requires one to accept any part of Aristotelian metaphysics suspect. But Christianity is not such a system. The second critical point is that I believe these Aristotelian views to be just plain wrong (the reasons why are a topic for another post).

I can only speculate as to the reasons for the continuing prevalence of these views. One speculation I might make is that the Catholic and Episcopal churches are more encouraging of philosophical pursuits than most other churches, and so Christian philosophy tends to have a Catholic/Episcopal bias. (I have reason to suspect that there might be a Calvinist bias in academic theology for similar reasons.) Whatever the case, I believe it is extremely important for Christians to critically examine these assumptions and engage with the world of secular metaphysics, as Peter van Inwagen has so admirably done. While Aristotle's influence persists, serious Aristotelianism seems to be rare in secular metaphysics (again, I haven't done an exhaustive survey, I'm just drawing on what I've read), so the assumptions made by Christian metaphysicians, or the things they are unwilling to challenge, may be hindering them from having effective dialog with the rest of the world of philosophy.

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