Thursday, October 19, 2006

Causal Chains and Reference to God

This is a slimmed down version of part 3 of my paper "Reference and Religion."

In this paper I present an overview and critical analysis of recent work that has been done to apply Kripke’s causal theory of reference to the case of talk about God. After briefly outlining the form in which such accounts proceed, I raise the problem of continuity of reference. This problem presents a problem for such theories. However, while this problem presents a difficulty in according us certainty with respect to reference to God, both the fact that it does so and the existence of its other virtues leave us with a workable and useful framework within which to situate talk about God within and across religious traditions.

Causal Chains and Reference to God
In his Naming and Necessity, Saul Kripke makes the following comment: “In the case of some terms, people might have doubts as to whether they’re names or descriptions; like ‘God’—does it describe God as the unique divine being or is it a name of God? But such cases needn’t necessarily bother us” (Kripke, 26-7). While Kripke bracketed the question of his work’s applicability to the case of religious language, there has appeared a marginal literature that has decided to take this question on.1 This literature takes the Kripkean causal theory of reference and attempts to apply it to talk about God. It describes a picture in which we are able to refer to God as a result of our historical connection with the Old Testament prophets and a community of users stemming therefrom. Such a way of looking at reference to God encounters a number of difficulties, including the connotative quality and literal meaningfulness of certain of the names of God and the possibility of “God” being an empty name (i.e. that God does not exist). An additional problem is that scripture presents us with no evidence of God having been baptized. I have dealt with the first two of these problems elsewhere and shown that while they require us to amend our Kripkean picture of names they do not in-and-of-themselves present insurmountable problems to applying the Kripkean picture to religious language.[1] There is however a fourth problem that presents a deep lacuna to Kripke’s formulation of the causal theory of reference and any attempts to utilize it in giving an account of the significance of religious language. This final issue concerns the question of continuity of reference. Kripke has used the idea of a causal chain leading from referrer to referent in order to explain how meaning gets determined without any intervening Fregean sense or Russellian description2. This is done in order to justify Millianism, the idea that names directly refer to or denote their bearers without any intervening or meaning-determining sense. We must ask ourselves: How exactly is it that the causal relationship between me and those prior to me ensures that I have referred to some object with a name and that we have referred to the same object? While I may stand in some historical connection with prior users of some name, what is it about this connection that renders my current use of the name successful and in accord with those before me? Although we will here concern ourselves with a critique of the causal picture on the basis of its failure to provide a viable mechanism to secure reference, to do so does not in and of itself commit ourselves to abandoning the entire Millian project. Moreover, while undertaking this project we must bear in mind that the causal picture does not fail because it fails to account for reference to God. Rather, it fails to provide a foolproof account for reference to God because it fails on its own. Finally, despite the fact that the causal picture fails to provide a rigorous account of the way in which reference to God is secured, it does provide us with a useful framework within which to consider both an abstract and practical questions about the relationship between tradition and reference to God.

In Naming and Necessity Saul Kripke presents what he terms a “picture” of causo-historical reference. According to Kripke’s account, it is not in virtue of our possession of or a name’s being shorthand for some uniquely identifying definite description(s) that we succeed in referring to an object with a name. For, we may consider cases in which we hold limited or false beliefs about a thing yet nevertheless succeed in referring to it with a name. Furthermore, we can conceive of possible worlds in which these putatively identifying definite descriptions do not hold true of our intended referent. Nevertheless, we are capable of succeeding in referring to it with some name. According to Kripke, this is because we stand in some direct causal relationship to the thing to which we refer. This is the result of that object having been baptized in the past with the rigidly designating proper name that we presently use. A rigidly designating proper name is a name that refers to the same being in all possible worlds. If this being exists in all possible worlds, the name is termed “strongly rigid.” This name has been passed down to us through a chain of people that used the name to refer to the actual thing that was originally given that name. So long as in our present use of the name we intend to be referring to the thing that stands at the beginning of this causal chain, our reference succeeds. Direct reference is secured regardless of the things that we have come to believe about the referent and the properties that the referent has come to satisfy.

William Alston (and others) takes this picture and applies it to reference to God. According to Alston's view, such a manner of reference begins with an experience of God. During some initial experience of God, a prophet succeeds in fixing the reference of the proper name ‘God’ for himself by baptizing the object of his experience, namely God, with the name. Following this experience, the manner of referring to God with the name ‘God’ is passed down to some community of worshippers, according to a Kripkean causal chain. The community then successfully talks about God, regardless of whether or not the individual members have their own veridical experiences of Him. If subsequent members of the tradition do in fact have experiences of God, and use the name ‘God’ to refer to the object of their experience, then the name becomes multiply grounded. Either way, the referent of ‘God’ becomes fixed in such a way that it becomes possible to refer directly to Him without the need of any essential sense or uniquely identifying definite description. This occurs not because the things that one says about Him are true (although they might be), but because of the referrer’s historical dependence on the original baptizer. Since this community is subsequently able to refer to God through the use of a directly referential proper name, it is no longer essential that the multitude have access to some uniquely identifying definite description(s). Even if they have come to have false or contradictory beliefs about God, they are still able to refer to Him with the name ‘God’. It becomes possible that both the most literal and the most figurative talk about God, though perhaps false, nevertheless succeed in being about God. That is, propositions containing false descriptive attributions made of God, rather than being about nothing and therefore meaningless, become meaningful though false, inasmuch as they are actually wrong about God. Whether or not this view gives a viable account of reference to God hangs on the condition that the chain-of-reference mechanism really does the work that it is supposed to. Let us therefore see what problems are involved in giving a causal explanation of reference to God.

One kind of objection is typical of that given by Gareth Evans and Michael Devitt[2]. Their objections are given against Kripke’s picture but may easily be reformulated against the causal picture of reference to God. These kinds of objections point out situations in which there have been divergences of reference and then attempts to show that there is a problem with the reliability of causal chains in linking us up with the originally baptized referent. It is thought that if the causal chain is an unreliable reference-preserving mechanism, the general Kripkean picture might provide necessary but not sufficient conditions of reference. The lesson to be learned from this kind of consideration is that even if the causal picture does in fact hold, it does not guarantee successful reference to the being standing at the beginning of some name’s causal chain. In the case of religious language, this objection undermines our certainty of referring to God.

In response to such an objection we may be led to respond by either (1) Giving a detailed account of the exact lineage along which the names of God have been transmitted through time from the prophets to ourselves through the use of scripture and various historical works; (2) Pointing out the importance of the speaker’s intention to refer to the same thing as the person before them in the causal chain; or (3) Relying on the continuity of observable phenomena in order to gather a high degree of certainty that the chain has been preserved.

In response to (1): We cannot prove continuity of reference from continuous succession. Knowing that we have inherited a practice of referring is not sufficient to establish continuity of reference. Even the most authentic disciple could make a mistake. History and genealogy cannot guarantee successful or continuous reference. For, the fact that a name has been used by many people by no means establishes that it has been used to designate or actually designated the same thing in each circumstance, unless we already presuppose that a community of referrers necessarily maintains the reference of its names. But to presuppose this does nothing but beg the question against our worries.

In response to (2): The problem with Kripke’s picture of proper names is that names can be borrowed or mistakenly applied to things other than their original referents. That is, while I may inherit some name from a person prior to me in its causal history, I may then either take that name and consciously use it to name something else or I may take that name and accidentally use it to refer to something else with the intention of referring to the inherited referent. That is, I may inherit a name and then use it to refer to something other than that object to which it rigidly referred prior to my inheriting it. This involves a new use of a name but not a new name simpliciter. Additionally, we must consider that following my original aberrant use of the name, I may continue referring to something else with the name while still believing myself to be referring to the original referent. Others may subsequently inherit this practice of mistaken reference from me. A tangential causal chain may then arise which leads back to a second rigid designation for the same name. This new causal chain may eventually become dominant. All of this can occur without our becoming aware of the shift in reference. Kripke’s stipulation that the inheritor of a name must intend to refer to the same thing as the person before them in the causal chain is therefore insufficient to guarantee continuity of reference.

In response to (3): Near the end of his book, Eternal God, Paul Helm addresses the question of the plausibility of a causal account of divine reference. He attempts to justify its reliability by synchronizing it with a stipulation requiring and allowing for the continuity of similar experiential content in contact with God. Helm is right to point out the importance of providing an account of the conditions necessary to guarantee continuity of reference to God. However, an appeal to continuity of observable phenomena will not be sufficient to guarantee continuity of reference to God or any other thing.

First, given a conception of God as not being a physical entity, it seems difficult to say what exactly would need to be observed. It’s not as though we could recognize God on the basis of hair color, costume, height, facial structure, etc. What about continuity of the content of religious experience? Could we observe something continuous in religious experiences that would be sufficient for our granting that these have all been of the same thing, namely the being named ‘God’? Without getting into too detailed of a discussion of religious experience, we may merely note first that religious experiences tend to be characterized as ineffable. Inasmuch as the subjects of these experiences will often claim that they are unable to describe what they experienced, it seems difficult to say what common characteristics of religious experience, other than ineffability, would be sufficient to determine whether or not these share a common object. Furthermore, experiences closely resembling religious experiences can be caused by things other than God. For example, someone may have an experience that they take to be religious as a result of anesthesia or drug use. These considerations should make us wary of appealing to phenomenal similarity of experience in attempting to establish sameness of the experienced.

Second, even if our conception of God did allow for some kind of necessary physical property, an observation of this in something referred to with the name ‘God’ would not be sufficient to grant continuity of reference. Even in cases where observable phenomena remain fixed, it is difficult to rely on continuity of observed phenomena for preserving continuity of reference. Consider the problem of twins. Observing two objects having nearly the same perceivable qualities can lead to a confusion of one for the other.

While it has been shown that it is possible that we succeed in referring to something as ‘God’ through our causal acquisition of this practice, it has not been shown that the existent we refer to as ‘God’ is the same existent that those before us referred to as ‘God’. There could have occurred divergences in reference between the initial baptism and our own. While we may use the same names as the prophets and the church fathers, that does not necessarily mean that we refer to the same thing as them. Similarly, while people of other faiths or other degrees of theological sophistication may use the same names as us, that does not necessarily mean that we are talking about the same thing. While the names could have a common origin, there may have occurred a shift in reference at some moment along the chain. This divergence may have occurred at a point of syncresis or appropriation, or even at some less obvious point of history. We cannot be sure if and when these shifts might have occurred. For this reason members of one faith may claim that members of another have gone astray. For example, a Jewish person might claim that even though he and a Moslem both take themselves to be referring to the God of Abraham, only the causal chain leading to himself and his brethren actually successfully leads back to God whereas that of the Moslem relies on some divergence. A Protestant might say this about a Catholic, etc. I see this not as a problem with thinking about referring to God along Kripkean means but rather a virtue of the theory. It is neither so naïve as to think that reference to God is fixed once and for all nor so skeptical as to refuse to admit the possibility of continual chains of reference stemming forth into multiple traditions. Rather, it gives us both a way of conceiving how both of these cases are possible and the theoretical framework to show how they could occur.

Alston, William. “Referring to God,” Philosophy of Religion 24 (1988), pp. 113-28.

Bochenski, Joseph M. The Logic of Religion. New York University. New York, 1965.

Byrne, Peter. “Response,” Referring to God. Ed. Paul Helm. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Devit, Michael. Designation. Columbia University. New York, 1981.

Evans, Gareth. “The Causal Theory of Names,” Aristotelean Society, suppl. Vol. 47
(1973), pp. 187-208.

Gale, Richard. On the Nature and Existence of God. Cambridge University. Cambridge,

Gellman, Jerome. “The Name of God,” Nous Vol. 29, No. 4. (December 1995), pp. 536-

Helm, Paul. Eternal God. Clarendon. Oxford, 1988.

Jeffrey, Andrew V. “Gale on Reference and Religious Experience,” Faith and Philosophy
Vol. 13, No. 1. (January, 1996), pp. 91-112.

Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, 1980.

Miller, Richard B. “The Reference of ‘God’,” Faith and Philosophy Vol. 3, No. 1
(January 1986), pp. 3-15.

Tucker, Aviezer. “Kripke and Fixing the Reference of ‘God’,” International Studies in
Philosophy Volume XXXIV, 4. 2002.

Ziff, Paul. “About God,” Religious Experience. Ed. Sidney Hook. New York University.
New York, 1961.

1See e.g. Alston (1988), Byrne (2000), Gale (1991), Gellman (1995), Helm (1988), Jeffrey (1996), Miller (1986), Tucker (2002).
[1] See my Reference and Religion (unpublished ms).
2Some philosophers have attempted to account for reference to God through the means of sense and description. For examples of this kind of an account of religious language, see Ziff (1961) and Bochenski (1965).

[2] See Evans (1973) and Devitt (1981).


Anonymous Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Hi Sam,
I want to comment on:
(2) Pointing out the importance of the speaker’s intention to refer to the same thing as the person before them in the causal chain;
And your comment that the person can use the same name to refer to something else, while still thinking that he/she refers to the same thing the people before him/her referred to.

That is possible, but in the cases where we have a 'first-hand' story/reportage (as in case of God, where we have stories of himself revealing to the people), there is no possibility for the original reference to be lost.
So, if someone means God today, he can mean "what appeared to Abraham, and introduced itself by the name 'God', and claimed thus and thus". Of course there is complication that stories are written (AFAIK) by Moses.

This situation that people keep the original reference even some might refer to something else makes it possible for people who actually believe in God to claim that what someone might think was experience of God, is actually illusion.

BTW, I wrote a few days ago a post on my blog about this same issue, and I will be happy if you check it out here.

8:26 AM  

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