Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Scripturalist Metaphysics of Personhood

Sean Gerety couldn't answer any of the questions or arguments I posed to him in my last response. That didn't stop him from declaring victory and then moving (in a hurry I might add) on to other things. I asked him several questions, yet, rather than answer them, he said I "threw in the towel." So here I am, all lonely with my questions unanswered, and now I don't even have my towel anymore.

Since Gerety doesn't want to engage me anymore, I thought I'd make a couple quick corrections to two things he said in regards to me and then move on to something that is really puzzling about Clarkian conceptions of personhood.

I. Gerety's Minor Response to Me Dealt With

First, in response to Gerety's claim that, "Given that only propositions can be either true or false and sensations, whatever they may be, are non-propositional, I have no idea how anyone might advance the idea of 'sense knowledge?'"; I replied that the senses were a source of knowledge. Gerety responded, "Well, of course they are Paul. They must be. After all you said they are." Of course, the point was to correct Gerety's misunderstandings. Given that the senses are a source of knowledge then his criticism doesn't even apply. That's the point I was making. I'd be happy to engage Gerety on the issue, he just has to formulate an objection correctly. You know, make it easy for me to see the argument by removing all the smoke introduced by burning straw men. Oh, by the way, if he chooses to advance an argument against "sense knowledge" I expect to see deductions from the Bible. Like, for example, where does a Scripturalist get the epistemically justified belief that "only propositions can be true or false?"

Second, Gerety said I was "unable to form any cogent arguments." Like with "sense knowledge" above, I doubt Gerety is using terms correctly. I am under no illusion that I can present a cogent argument to a Scripturalist for almost anything. Cogency has to do with persuasiveness, and Scripturalists have negated themselves from constructive debate. Their epistemology precludes them from granting cogency. In other words, Gerety's just complaining that I'm not a Scripturalist.

II. Scripturalism's Odd Metaphysic of Personhood

I truly find the claim that "persons are the propositions they think" to be about one of the most absurd claims I've come across. However, I'm open to elucidation. It may be that I'm just misunderstanding their claim. Here's some of the issues I have with the claim:

1. The biblical support for this claim seems utterly contrived. In response to Hays, Gerety offers up what he takes to be biblical support from the metaphysics of personhood, namely, that "a person is the propositions they think." Gerety wrote, "I suppose Solomon was also guilty of 'pantheistic idealism' when he wrote; 'For as a man thinks within himself, so he is.'"

I find it hard to accept that Solomon was offering a treatise on the metaphysics of personhood here. And doubly so without the attendant exegesis. Can Sean point to any exegesis that supports his understanding of this passage?

Here's some problems I have with this "exegesis":

i) Solomon is talking about dinning with stingy men, not about the metaphysics of personhood. He's also using a lot of metaphors.

ii) Other translations might be "his heart is not with you."

iii) The selfish man is the only one said to "think in his heart so he is." Gerety is moving beyond the premises by applying this to all men, making an invalid move from particular to universal. Or, did he use induction?

2. Given that people believe different propositions at different times, what grounds personal identity across time? In other words, if I believe a set S of propositions at t, and then I believe ~S at t1, what does it mean to say that the two "I's" are the same, identical person?

3. How can 1 minute old concepti be persons? How can a Clarkian consistently condemn abortion? In fact, do infants "think propositions?" How can a Clarkian condemn infanticide?

4. What if I am not thinking any propositions (say I'm sleeping)?

5. (a) Is it false to say the numerically one God thinks?

(b) Since Jesus thinks (a) I am created and (b) I am not created, is Jesus two people? That looks like it follows straight from Sean's claim that since the Father doesn't think "I am incarnated" and since the Son does, this gives them their status as separate persons. Where's the flaw in my deduction from Sean's claims?

6. Gerety says, "Of course, since no two people think precisely the same thoughts, no two people are the same person." But, (a) how does he know this and (b) it seems possible that two people could think, at some time, precisely the same thought(s). I could see some successful psychologist or hypnotist doing some experiment whereupon completion his patients think the same thoughts. Say he binds them to beds, places them in a pitch black room, erases their memory, and hypnotizes them to think "I am a mermaid." What's the difference between the two?

7. What if Sean Gerety and I switched bodies, bumped our heads, and became amnesiacs. After retraining, I believed I was Sean Gerety and believed Sean-Gerety-propositions. Gerety, the more lucky of the two in this scenario, had the same happen. Would I be the same "person" as Anita Manata's oldest son? On what basis? To say the same person now believes an entirely different set of propositions seems to imply a substance that exists through time and can have different things predicated of it.

As I said, I'm just asking. Can a Scripturalist spell out this "persons are the propositions they think" concept more clearly?


  1. I can't comment on whether the claim that "persons are the propositions they think" is a fair representation of GHC's position. But I hope it isn't, because it strikes me as incoherent on the face of it.

    The most glaring problem is that it's a circular analysis. According this view, I am no more than a set of propositions. But which set of propositions? Apparently the set of those propositions that I think (rather than those propositions someone else thinks). But of course, this presupposes that 'I' can be identified independently of the propositions that I think.

    To avoid circularity, the personal indexical ('I', 'their', etc.) needs to be eliminated from the analysans. But then we're left with the idea that I am the set of propositions that is thought by a set of propositions. This is worthless on several levels. In the first place, how does a set of propositions think -- of anything, let alone another set of propositions? Second, we're apparently left with no way of identifying which set of propositions constitutes which person. However we make that identification, we cannot, on pain of analytical circularity, make use of any personal indexicals.

  2. James,

    You're right that it is absurd. But here's what Gerety is giving me to go by. He quotes Clark thus:


    "Though they [the Persons of the Godhead] are equally omniscient, they do not all know the same truths. Neither the complex of truths we call the Father nor those we call the Spirit, has the proposition, “I was incarnated.” This proposition occurs only in the Son’s complex. Other examples are implied. The Father cannot say, “I walked from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Nor can the Spirit say, “I begot the Son.” Hence they Godhead consists of three Persons, each omniscient without having precisely the same content. If this is so, no difficulty can arise as to the distinctiveness of human persons. Each one is an individual complex. Each one is his mind or soul. Whether the propositions be true or false, a person is the propositions he thinks."


    Now, this is just odd. I mean, "the collection of truths we call the father>" is about as out there a theological statement I've heard.

    Anyway, Clark says that "a person is the proposition he thinks."

    Gerety agrees and applies what he takes to be Clark's view to Steve thusly:


    "I suppose Solomon was also guilty of “pantheistic idealism” when he wrote; “For as a man thinks within himself, so he is.” Of course, since no two people think precisely the same thoughts, no two people are the same person. This would also apply to the Person’s of Trinity. Consequently, and contra the unthinking calumny of Hays, Clark easily solves the problem of individuation, defined precisely what he means by “person” and did so according to the Scriptures, completely avoids meaningless words like “substance,” and clearly maintains God’s oneness and threeness without confusion or contradiction."


    Similarly, John Robbins writes,


    "Perhaps the best solution offered to date to the problem of the Trinity is that proposed by the late Gordon H. Clark. He defined a person as a set of thoughts. That is, "a man is what he thinks" (The Incarnation, 1985, 54 and 64; The Trinity, 1985, 105 and 106). There are a number of clear advantages to this definition."


  3. Another quote from Robbins:


    "Since truth always comes in propositions, the mind of God, that is, God himself, is propositional. Clark wrote a book called The Johannine Logos, in which he explained how Christ could identify himself with his words: "I am the Truth." "I am the Life." "The words that I speak to you are truth and life." Clark, like Augustine, was accused of "reducing" God to a proposition. Rather than fleeing from such an accusation, Clark astonished some of his readers by insisting that persons are indeed propositions. Some have been so confused by his statement that they think he said that propositions are persons, and so they wonder whether a declarative sentence, The cat is black, is really a person."


  4. "There are a number of clear advantages to this definition."

    If by "clear advantages" Robbins means "crippling incoherences", then I wholeheartedly agree. ;)

    C'mon. How can any self-respecting set of propositions take these ideas seriously? :)

    It seems to me that even Clark wasn't really clear on what he wanted to claim:

    "Each one is an individual complex. Each one is his mind or soul. Whether the propositions be true or false, a person is the propositions he thinks."

    First, a mind/soul is typically taken to be metaphysically simple, not complex. Second, a mind is logically distinct from the thoughts in that mind. Third, a thought is logically distinct from the proposition contained in that thought (at least for humans). So which is it? Am I (a) a mind/soul, (b) a set of thoughts, or (c) a set of propositions?

    Inquiring sets of propositions want to know.

  5. James,

    When I kissed my kids goodnight, I had an exhilarating thought run through my mind (or, part of me ran through another part of me). I said to myself: So, this is what it's like to kiss a proposition. I told my wife about this, and she has requested I put on cherry chapstick before we kiss. apparently, propositions taste better cherry-dipped. But hey, I'f I ever meet you, I'd love to shake some of your propositions.

  6. Paul,

    I do not appreciate being propositioned in that way.

  7. Would you prefer I sentence you?


    There's a relevant section on "REALITY, PERSONS, & PROPOSITIONS"

  9. If Hoover's claim that Clark's views lead to "thoroughgoing rationalistic Idealism" is true, then I think they also fall under Van Til's charge that pure determinism and rationalism leads to pantheism (or some kind of monism). Norman Geisler has said something like "this is not the best possible world, but it is the best of all possible ways to get to the best of all possible worlds." He might have been echoing Voltaire's satirical work, "Candide." Which itself was poking fun of Leibnitz's view that this IS the best of all possible worlds. However, Gordon Clark has gone beyond all of that and wrote...


    It is not true that the Father could choose to create or choose not to create. God did not have, from eternity, a blank mind, undecided as to whether to create or not. God’s mind is, or better, includes the idea of this particular cosmos, with Abraham, David, and Jesus at particular points.

    This is not the “best of all possible worlds,” Leibniz claimed: It is the only possible world, As Spinoza claimed. Since God’s mind is immutable, since his decree is eternal, it follows that no other world than this is possible or imaginable.

    The Trinity, 111,118-119.


    If that doesn't lead to some form of monism, I don't know what does. It seems Clark would have agreed with Parmenides that "Whatever is, IS." It seems that not only is God pure actuality, but the rest of creation might be as well. Creation becomes corellative to God and vice versa. Clark's views might lend support to some kind of acosmism, or panpsychism, or pantheism, or pandeism, or panentheism.

    As Van Til often pointed out, for the non-Christian rationalist, logic necessitates that creation ex nihilo is impossible. Which leads to Van Til's common example of an apparent paradox. How, can an immutable and timeless God be said to have created, when the concept of creation (at least from all human experience) is something that is a temporal process. In which case, if we use the term "creation" univocally, then finite godism must result because God would have to be "in" time (i.e. his eternality would have to be temporal eternality, rather than timeless eternality). Since Clark rejected analogical language in theology, he would have conclude what he did. If a temporally eternal God can lend support to some kind of Arianism or semi-Arianism (by lowering Christ to a kind of creature), then Clark's views of God can lead to some kind of pantheism because it raises creation to the ontological level of God in that creation becomes part of God's nature (or God's thoughts, or dream(s), or ideas). Hence, Idealism.

    It's no wonder that Vincent Cheung admits that he has been accused of being a pantheist because of his occasionalism. But even then, his continuous creation still connotes a temporal process. Clark seems to be more thoroughgoing in that he seems to espouse what Van Til often described as one timeless block of being. It's a virtual denial of the Creator/creature distinction. Instead of creatio ex nihilo, he would have to hold to something resembling Eastern mythologies that teach something like creatio ex deo.

    I'd like to see a Clarkian solve this apparent paradox that Van Til often mentioned (in his sermons) in an orthodox fashion since they can't appeal to mystery or analogy.

    Paul said...
    (b) Since Jesus thinks (a) I am created and (b) I am not created, is Jesus two people?I think a Clarkian might say that Jesus thinks, (a) "As to my divine nature, I am not created." and (b) "As to my human nature, I am created". But if we take Clark's statement in his book "The Trinity" seriously, then that might mean that Jesus has **eternally** thought of himself as being incarnate. So, for all Clarkians know, creation might have been (or should I say timelessly IS) eternally divine.

    Btw, if it's not apparent (heh), I'm dealing with theological issues way over my head. I'm sure I'm getting a few things wrong. Please correct me where I am. But, I do think that in general, Clark's views can lead to some form of monism (if not directly, then indirectly).

    Also, let's not forget Steve's relevant blogs here

    and here

  10. Clark said, "It is the only possible world, As Spinoza claimed." Yet, we know that Spinoza was a notorious pantheist.

    If all of reality (including God?) are a set of propositions, and if God has eternally known all true propositions, then doesn't it follow that all of reality "is of a piece"? That there's only one substance. Parmenides, and Zeno would have been right all along.

  11. AP,

    "Paul said...
    (b) Since Jesus thinks (a) I am created and (b) I am not created, is Jesus two people?"

    I think a Clarkian might say that Jesus thinks, (a) "As to my divine nature, I am not created." and (b) "As to my human nature, I am created". But if we take Clark's statement in his book "The Trinity" seriously, then that might mean that Jesus has **eternally** thought of himself as being incarnate. So, for all Clarkians know, creation might have been (or should I say timelessly IS) eternally divine"

    They *could* claim those things, but besides James Anderson's dealings with those types of maneuvers in his book, my question would be: Then how can Clark avoid modalism? Apparently, to think, "I was incarnate" is to show that the son is different than the father. But a modalist could respond, "No with respect to the mode of Son, God became incarnate." So, this move would leave them defenseless on orthodox trinitarianism. They can't have their cake and eat it too.

    Furthermore, It is true *of Jesus* that he was created. It was true *of Jesus* that he was, say, in his dad's woodshop and *not*, say, down the street at his friend's house. It wasn't just *a nature* that was at the woodshop. So, Jesus could think, "I am at the wooshop, and not at my friend's house" and he could also think "I am omnipresent."

    The problem is the *personhood* of Christ. Beliefs are ascribed to *persons*. Jesus could truly believe that "*I* am ignorant of my return" as well as "*I* am not ignorant of it." So, what would it mean for Jesus to say, "I am ignorant of my return with respect to my human nature?" If there were an actual *belief* and only people *believe* (not natures), then the *person* of Jesus *believed* many things conflicting with his divine beliefs.

    Now, there may be ways to get around the apparent paradox of the incarnation. My point isn't to discount *them*. But it *is* to discount *Clark's* view. Since only *person's* believe propositions, and on Clark's terms persons are defined by the set of propositions they believe, and since we clearly have two different *sets* of thoughts, Clark would have to admit of two persons.

    So, to say, "With respect to my human nature _I_ *belived* XYZ" and with respect to my divine nature _I_ believed ~XYZA," we would have, on *Clark's* view, *two* people.

    If we don't have it here, we don't have it with the Trinity.

  12. One of the problems with Clark's contention is his unargued assumption that if God choose one possible world over another, then that must involve a prior state or prior moment of indecision. But that's to get carried away the incidental features of a human decision-making process.

    It's also bizarre for Clark to say that no other world is even "imaginable" for God.

  13. If persons are the propositions they think, and if persons have causal powers, then it follows that propositions have causal powers. Is it just me, or is there a rather obvious link to "word of faith" theology?