Intentionality and Theodicy
October 14, 2017 — 15:30

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

The following line of thought is commonly found in analytic philosophy of mind: the reason calculators, for instance, are not minds is that the symbols they manipulate in order to solve mathematical problems to not mean anything to them (the calculators). It is not that their symbols/representations lack meaning or reference. Rather, they have the meaning or reference they do because of our conventions and the aims and purposes we have for calculators. This is known as derived intentionality. Our mental states, on the other hand, exhibit original intentionality. Their meaningfulness is not due to someone else’s employment of those symbols, but our own. Now, this talk about aims, purposes, and employment (according to this common line of thought) is a hint in the direction of the proper explanation of original intentionality. What would be needed for the calculator to think would be for these symbols to play an informational or indicative role for it, for them to have a function in meeting its needs, ensuring its survival, etc. And this is what we find with respect to information encoded in human and animal brains: certain states have the function of carrying information about the environment because either evolution or learning selected for those states to occur in those circumstances so that the animal’s well-being (evolutionary fitness) would be promoted by responding appropriately to those circumstances.*

If this story is true, it opens up the possibility of a new and interesting sort of theodicy. If the story is true then it may turn out that, quite apart from any questions about free will, it is metaphysically impossible for created minds to exist in the complete absence of evil.

To see why, consider a problem. On this view, if God directly creates an adult human ex nihilo** (like swampman) and God intends the human’s brain states to represent certain states of the external world, then, one worries, the human’s brain states will have only derived intentionality and the human will therefore not exhibit genuine thought—any more than a calculator does. So what does God need to do in order to give the human genuine thought? God needs to bring it about that these brain states function as representational or information-carrying states for the human, that the interpretation of them as meaning this or that is not imposed from the outside, but part of the human’s constitution. In order to bring this about (according to the story) the human must have needs which are satisfied only by the proper functioning of the system. The only is important: there must be a contrast class of cases in which the needs are unsatisfied. It thus appears that (if this story is correct) creatures can have states exhibiting original intentionality, and hence engage in genuine thought, only if they are genuinely vulnerable to their environment, and this requires the existence of evil.

Objection One: this story does nothing to address the magnitude, kinds, and unjust distribution of evil. Well, I’m not sure it does nothing about this problem, but it certainly doesn’t solve it. But no one should expect a real solution to that problem.

Objection Two: the theist can’t endorse the story in question, since the theist holds that God, an immaterial being with no needs, has original intentionality. To this objection, I have two replies. First, many theists have accepted some form of the doctrine of analogy, according to which the thing we call ‘knowledge’ in God is not actually of the same kind as our knowledge (though our use of the same word for both is supposed to be somehow non-arbitrary), and even theists who don’t endorse this doctrine must admit (on grounds quite independent of the story I’ve just told) that God’s knowledge is quite different from ours, so this may not be very problematic. Second, since God was not made by someone else, there is no worry that God’s states might have derived intentionality, and so at least one part of the worry the story is addressing does not apply.

Objection Three: most theists believe the human mind is immaterial, so they don’t want a naturalistic reduction of intentionality. Again, I have two replies. First, although this is probably true as a sociological generalization, that doesn’t reduce the philosophical interest of this combination of views. There’s nothing inconsistent in combining theism with this approach to intentionality and it looks like it has at least one significant benefit for the theist: it has the consequence that there couldn’t have been created minds and no evil at all, and so explains why there is at least some evil in the world. (As I conceded above, it does very little if anything to explain the magnitude, kinds, and distribution of evil.) Second, the relevant portions of the account could be endorsed by someone who held that the intrinsic nature of mental states was exhausted by their phenomenal character and representation/intentionality derives from the way those states are used by the mind according to rules (as on my interpretation of Berkeley). So it is not inconsistent with immaterialism about mind, or even with some of the leading arguments for immaterialism about the mind (those stemming from the irreducibility of qualia).

* Rather different versions of (approximately) this line of thought can be found, for instance, in Fred Dretske and Ruth Millikan.

** Essentiality of origins concerns may lead one to deny that this creation is really a human, but let’s ignore that complexity.

(Cross-posted at

Virtual Colloquium: Tomas Bogardus and Mallorie Urban, “How to Tell Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God”
March 31, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 17

Today’s virtual colloquium paper is “How to Tell Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God” by Tomas Bogardus and Mallorie Urban. Dr. Bogardus received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pepperdine University. His papers on epistemology and the philosophy of religion have appeared in journals such as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophical Studies, Ethics, Faith and Philosophy, and Philosophia. Mallorie Urban is an undergraduate philosophy major at Pepperdine.

How to Tell Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God

Tomas Bogardus and Mallorie Urban

We start the paper by laying out three recent arguments for the “Same God” thesis, and offering objections. Francis Beckwith offers an argument from monotheism: Christians and Muslims both believe there can be only one God, so they must be worshiping the same God. We doubt that inference. After all, two baseball fans might agree that only one team can be the best, without thereby thinking the same team is the best. Michael Rea argues that if Christians and Muslims aren’t worshiping the same God, then “God” for one group is “absolutely meaningless,” or refers absurdly to a mere human being, an animal or plant, an inanimate object like a rock or a star. We again doubt that inference, since there’s a third option: “God” for one group is a meaningful but empty name, like “Zeus” is for Zeus-worshipers. Finally, Dale Tuggy argues that since Christians and Muslims are engaged in genuine theological disagreements, they must be talking about the same God. We’re skeptical again, since it’s possible for a name to shift reference over time or across groups, and for two people to disagree while using the same name without thereby referring to the same entity. In the paper, we use the example of how “Santa Claus” has shifted reference over time and across groups, in a way that could allow one child to use “Santa Claus” to refer to St. Nicholas, another to use that same name to refer to a jolly Nordic creature of fiction, and for these two children to disagree vociferously about the sentence “Santa Claus is dead.” (Or, if you insist that it’s part of the meaning of “genuine disagreement” that there’s co-reference, what this case shows is that something can look and sound just like a genuine disagreement—and even involve the same name—without really being a genuine disagreement. For all Tuggy says, this could be what’s going on with apparently genuine theological disagreements between Christians and Muslims.)

The case of “Santa Claus” also makes trouble for anyone who thinks a simple Kripkean causal picture of reference supports the “Same God” conclusion. On a common interpretation/extrapolation of Kripke’s causal picture—which Kripke himself was reluctant to endorse—a name acquires its referent at a baptism ceremony, and then is passed along from speaker to speaker who form, as it were, links on a chain. And as long as each link in that chain intends to use the name in the same way as the previous links, the name preserves its reference. So, one might think, since Mohammad acquired divine names from neighboring Jews and Christians, and intended to use the names as Jews and Christians do, he therefore referred to—and directed worship toward—the same God that Jews and Christians do. And similarly with subsequent Muslims.

But that’s not the way reference works. Kripke himself was aware of the troubling case of “Santa Claus,” and he says: “There may be a causal chain from our use of the term ‘Santa Claus’ to a certain historical saint, but still the children, when they use this, by this time probably do not refer to that saint.” Inspired by Gareth Evans’ theory of reference, we suggest that our conception of Santa Claus became so corrupted and distorted by myth-makers that at some point in the past—and it’s vague when this happened—the man St. Nicholas ceased to be the dominant source of information that we associate with the name “Santa Claus,” at which point the name ceased to refer to him.

We then develop Evans’ notion of dominance, exploring a few ways we might weight information in a name’s “dossier,” different types of information that we might elevate to dominance, i.e. to a sine-qua-non position in the name’s dossier. The details are in the paper, but the upshot is this: we can tell whether a name has shifted reference by asking certain hypothetical questions about the use of the name. For example, we know that “Santa Claus” shifted reference because, when we ask “What if there were no jolly Nordic elf who’s alive and delivers presents on Christmas, but there had been an ancient bishop of Myra who did such and such noble things, but is now dead? Might “Santa Claus” still refer?” all the children shout “NO!” In that contemporary use of “Santa Claus,” certain mythical information has been elevated to dominance, so that when children find out that nobody answers to that information, they conclude there is no Santa Claus and never was, that “Santa Claus” fails to refer. It has shifted reference from fact to fiction.

And now we can answer our “Same God?” question: If Islam were false and Christianity true, might “Allah” still refer? If YES, then, from a Christian perspective, Muslims’ modified conception of “Allah” has not shifted its reference. If NO, then it has. And: if Christianity were false and Islam were true, might “God” still refer? If YES, then, from a Muslim perspective, Christians’ modified conception of “God” has not shifted its reference. If NO, then it has.

Depending on your answers to those questions, it could be that you’ll think, from the perspective of each religion, that the other’s modified use of the divine name has not shifted its reference, like how early modifications of the use of “Santa Claus” didn’t yet shift its reference. In that case, you’ll probably be sympathetic to the “Same God” conclusion. Or it could be that you’ll think, from the perspective of each religion, the other has made such radical modifications that the divine name has shifted reference, as happened at some point in the fairly recent past with “Santa Claus.” In that case, you’ll likely deny the “Same God” conclusion. Another option is that it’s unclear whether, from the perspective of each religion, the other’s modifications to the use of the divine name were radical enough to shift reference, as it was for quite some time unclear whether the gradual modifications of the use of “Santa Claus” had made it cease to refer to St. Nicholas. And then you’ll likely think there’s simply no determinate fact of the matter on the “Same God?” question, or at least none we’re in a position to affirm.

We close with some speculations about what, in addition to co-reference, might be required for co-worship, and whether, from a Christian perspective, salvation turns on this issue.

The complete paper is here. Comments welcome below!