Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Divine speech acts and classical theism

Here is a question I have wondered about and have never heard or seen much discussion of:

  1. What does it mean to say that God engaged in some speech act, such as commanding or asserting?

The more anthropomorphic one’s theism, the easier the question can be answered, because the closer the analogy between divine speech acts and ours. But the setting that interests me here is classical theism (both because it’s the truth theory of God and because it’s more challenging). In particular, let’s take on board divine immutability and simplicity.

Let’s think about the human case first. We’re going to have to pay close attention to such factors as intention and context. Thus, the same words in the same tone are an assertion in an ordinary conversation but not an assertion when spoken on a stage. The same handwritten sentence can be a command in one case and in another can be a handwriting exercise. Theorists will differ as to the balance between intention and context in the correct theory. But I think it is easy to argue that an important part of the distinction between assertion and play-acting or between command and handwriting exercise will be constituted by intentions. For instance, it is not simply being on a stage that makes one’s words not be assertions. The actor on stage can yell “Fire!” upon seeing the flames licking the back of the room, and that will be an assertion—even if that word happens to be exactly what the script calls for at this time. (It may be an assertion that is not taken up, though, much as an assertion might not be heard in a loud rooom.)

Very roughly speaking, to engage in a speech act of kind K, one has to form the intention to be taken by one’s audience as engaging in a speech act of kind K.

Now, there are natural rock formations that look like faces. Suppose that somewhere in the solar system there is a natural rock formation that spells out “God exists”, and one day an English speaking astronaut comes across it. Is it an assertion by God?

It is certainly something made by God. For God made everything other than himself. But did God make it with the intention that it be taken as an assertion? Or is it just a formation of rocks intended for some other purpose than to be taken as an assertion? (Presumably, it’s not a handwriting exercise, since God doesn’t need to practice being already perfect.)

On more anthropomorphic theisms, there is no special problem here about the God case. God can form the intention to make an assertion just as a human being can or, just as a human being, he can fail to form that intention. But if divine simplicity is correct, then there are no contingent intrinsic divine properties. There is just God. Any contingency is on the side of creation. In particular, there cannot be two worlds that are exactly alike except with respect to divine intentions intrinsic to God. Divine intentions must supervene on creation and on necessary truths about God. But what contingent facts about creation and necessary truths about God can make it be that the rock formation is or is not a divine assertion?

One might try to make use of divine reasons. I have argued that divine simplicity entails divine omnirationality: whenever God does something, he does it for all the good reasons there are for doing it, rather than choosing which of the good reasons to act on. Now, suppose that in fact the astronaut’s faith in God is strengthened by the rock formation. That’s a good thing. Goods provide reasons. So, God has a good reason to make the rock formation in order to strengthen the astronaut’s faith. But the astronaut’s faith is presumably strengthened by her taking the formation as a divine assertion. So, God has a reason to have the astronaut take the formation as a divine assertion. And, thus, by omnirationality, God is acting on that reason, and the rock formation is an assertion.

But take a variant case. Our astronaut lands on a planet with a rock formation that says “Kneel!” But, now, kneeling is both good and bad for the astronaut. Perhaps it is spiritually good but physically bad, because our astronaut has bad knees. The astronaut takes it as a command. That’s a good and a bad thing: she kneels, hurts her knees, and the mission is in jeopardy. But she spent a few minutes in prayer, and that was good for her. And, in fact, in a complex world there will generally be pluses and minuses of anything. Even in the case of the “God exists!” rock formation, there is some benefit to believing without such overt signs, perhaps a greater maturity of faith.

We could try to make the intention condition work something like this: God counts as intending that something assertion-like or command-like (structured symbolically in the right way) be taken as an assertion or command provided it’s good in some way that it be taken as such. But that seems overbroad. Or we could say it’s an assertion or command provided it’s good on balance that it be taken as such. But when we are dealing with incommensurable values, there may be no “on balance”. These objections aren’t fatal: but they point to a need to do serious philosophical work here.

Here is a possible different solution. We don’t need to advert to speaker intentions in every case to figure out whether something is a speech act of the right sort. When yelled from the stage, we may need to know whether “Fire!” is intended as a warning or as part of the script. But when yelled from the seats, there is no reasonable doubt. There are contexts where no reasonable person in the relevant audience would fail to take something as a certain kind of speech act. You come across the Summa Theologica in a heath. Of course, it’s a speech act, of whatever sort a theological discourse is (a series of arguments and assertions). Every reasonable person who knew the language (that’s perhaps the relevant audience component) would take it as such.

Perhaps we can now say this:

  1. In contexts where every reasonable person in the relevant audience who knew the relevant context sufficiently well would take something to be a divine speech act of a certain kind, it is a primary case of a divine speech act of that kind.

For primary divine speech acts, we need some kind of reasonable luminosity: they need to be the sort of thing that one couldn’t reasonably doubt to be divine speech acts if one knew the relevant circumstances. Perhaps God builds into our nature an ability to recognize divine speech acts.

And then we have derivative cases of divine speech acts, which are when the initial audience is enlarged by means of the members of the initial audience becoming heralds of the message, and the process continues. When the herald is being faithful to the message, what the herald says counts as a speech act of the original speaker. So, the heralds pass on the word of God. And since the heralds are human, their intentions are relevant and raise no deep ontological concerns.

This story would lead to a rather restrictive view of divine speech acts. The rock formations, in a vast universe, could be reasonably doubted. So they aren’t primary divine speech acts. The primary divine speech acts may, rather, be more like cases of prophecy, where God makes it reasonably impossible for the prophet to doubt what kind of a speech act it is.

I am not very happy with any of the stories above. This is just a vague and inchoate start. I don’t really want to finish off this task. It would make a really interesting philosophical theology dissertation, though.

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