Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Is the Incarnation possible?

The Trinity and the Incarnation are two central Christian doctrines. Moreover, these are interrelated. One particular member of the Trinity becomes Incarnate.

Unitarians attack both doctrines. There are different kinds of unitarians. Muslims and Jews. They attack these Christian doctrines from a different religious framework. You also have heretics who present unitarianism as the true Christian position. And you have religious pluralists like John Hick who attack the Incarnation because it's "intolerant." 

The Incarnation, if true, is a contingent truth. It happened by the will of God. In principle, God might have refrained from willing the Incarnation.

The Trinity, if true, is a necessary truth. It figures in the essential nature of God. 

At least, that's the case if you regard God as a necessary being–or espouse classical theism. If, on the other hand, you espouse process theology, then the question of whether God has an essential nature is disputable. 

Christianity is a historical religion. By that I mean, it's an actual religion, practiced by billions of adherents past and present. It's not a thought-experiment or philosophical idea, like monadology or the brain-in-the-vat. 

As such, if you (the unitarian) see fit to attack the Incarnation or the Trinity, then it seems natural to attack the specifically Christian versions. There are different approaches. Jews and Muslims contend that the NT is false. Heretics content that the NT has been misinterpreted. 

However, unitarians often raises supposedly logical or  metaphysical objections to the Incarnation and the Trinity. But in that event, are their objections to the Christian doctrines in particular, or to the possibility of an Incarnation, and the possibility of the Trinity?

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that unitarianism is true. That rules out the Incarnation of the Son, inasmuch as that requires a Trinitarian presupposition. That, however, doesn't ipso facto rule out the possibility of a divine Incarnation. Even if you deny that God is Trinitarian, it doesn't follow that the Incarnation of God is impossible. Even if you deny the reality of a divine Incarnation, it doesn't follow that the very idea of a divine Incarnation is logically or metaphysically impossible.   

To contend that a divine Incarnation is not even possible is a very philosophically demanding claim. Yet unless unitarians can show that an Incarnation is impossible in general or in principle, they can't show that it's impossible in particular (i.e. Christology). 

If they were intellectually honest, they'd recast the debate. Rather than beginning with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation as their target, they'd try to prove that a divine Incarnation, even in the abstract, is essentially incoherent. But that's a tall order. It turns on different models of a divine incarnation. 

What about the Trinity? Suppose we didn't know that much about what God was like. What if we were left to speculate, not knowing one way or the other. Are unitarians entitled to claim, a priori, that God could not be Trinitarian? Unitarians like Dale Tuggy invoke " the law of identity." Here are some examples of the law:

The Identity of Indiscernibles (hereafter called the Principle) is usually formulated as follows: if, for every property F, object x has F if and only if object y has F, then x is identical to y. 
The Indiscernibility of Identicals (Roughly, if a = b, then whatever is true of a is true of b, and vice versa.) 
The principle of the identity of indiscernibles, which states that any entities which are indiscernible with respect to their properties are identical. Leibniz is fond of using leaves as an example. Two leaves often look absolutely identical. But, Leibniz argues, if "two" things are alike in every respect, then they are the same object, and not two things at all. So, it must be the case that no two leaves are ever exactly alike.

Problem is, most philosophers think personal identity is consistent with diachronic identity and/or counterfactual identity. But they didn't get that from applying the "law of identity" to diachronic identity or counterfactual identity. Rather, they make allowance for diachronic identity and counterfactual identity despite the "law of identity." For instance:

There may seem to be an obvious objection to the employment of transworld identity to interpret or paraphrase statements such as ‘Bertrand Russell might have been a playwright’. A fundamental principle about (numerical) identity is Leibniz's Law: the principle that if A is identical with B, then any property of A is a property of B, and vice versa. In other words, according to Leibniz's Law, identity requires the sharing of all properties; thus any difference between the properties of A and B is sufficient to show that A and B are numerically distinct. (The principle here referred to as ‘Leibniz's Law’ is also known as the Indiscernibility of Identicals. It must be distinguished from another (more controversial) Leibnizian principle, the Identity of Indiscernibles, which says that if A and B share all their properties then A is identical with B.) However, the whole point of asserting a transworld identity is to represent the fact that an individual could have had somewhat different properties from its actual properties. Yet does not (for example) the claim that a philosopher in the actual world is identical with a non-philosopher in some other possible world conflict with Leibniz's Law? 
It is generally agreed that this objection can be answered, and the appearance of conflict with Leibniz's Law eliminated. We can note that the objection, if sound, would apparently prove too much, since a parallel objection would imply that there can be no such thing as genuine (numerical) identity through change of properties over time. But it is generally accepted that no correct interpretation of Leibniz's Law should rule this out.

Two problems:

i) To say it "proves too much" because that would apply perforce to diachronic identity begs the question.

ii) Likewise, to say it "proves too much" doesn't entail that the interpretation of the law is wrong. The law itself may be too stringent. 

The law of identity, as commonly formulated (see above) doesn't have any give. It doesn't permit change or identity across possible worlds. To make allowance for diachronic identity or transworld identity is to reduce "identity" to a matter of degree. 

This is a case of conflicting intuitions. On the one hand, there's an intuition about numerical identity. On the other hand, there's an intuition about personal identity. Since these are in tension, philosophers propose ad hoc modifications of the "law of identity" to make room for common sense exceptions. Sometimes the tradeoff is made explicit. For instance:

Endurantism seems able to accommodate our prephilosophical belief that Henry persists through the change only at the expense of rejecting the Indiscernibility of Identicals. M. Loux, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 3rd ed. 2006), 244. 

Now, I don't object to the common sense exceptions. But if you must weaken or relax the "law of identity," then there's a problem with how numerical identity is formulated in the first place. If you can only accommodate personal identity in spite of how the law is formulated, then that needs to be revised. They didn't begin with the law of identity, then use that as a criterion to determine the nature of personal identity. Rather, they begin with their experience of personal identity, including their hypothetical deliberations, and adjust the law of identity accordingly, as necessary, to conform to experience or common sense. But the whole point of having a law of identity is to distinguish identity from nonidentity. If, however, identity is consistent with difference, then what demarcates identity from nonidentity? 

Is it a particular kind (or kinds) of difference that's incompatible with identity? Perhaps. But that's not how the law of identity is formulated. And if it were reformulated to take that into account, it would be less rigorous. The point of a law is to make a general or preferably universal statement. Everything on one side is identity, everything on the other side is nonidentity.


  1. However, unitarians often raises supposedly logical or metaphysical objections to the Incarnation and the Trinity.

    In a previous blogpost Dale wrote in the combox:

    Classic example of catholic tradition changing plain NT teaching. There, God sends his Son, a man. This gets changed to: God shows up, as a man. Many problems with this theory, one being that the man dies, whereas God is essentially immortal.

    That Jesus was able to die is so easily answered by Trinitarians that I have to wonder why Dale brought it up as an objection. Normally, you mention or raise the more difficult problems of your opponent, not the more easily refuted objections. Otherwise you make yourself look ignorant and you waste your opponents time. Is it because he's not aware of the Trinitarian answer? Or does he think it's a bad answer? That he's got a response that can overcome the standard Trinitarian answer? If he's not aware of the answer, then has he really studied the the Trinitarian and Incarnational position? If he has, then why state the objection in the most easily answered way? Why not state the objection in the more sophisticated way that anticipates the standard Trinitarian answer?

    Dale, if you're reading this, do you really think that's a good objection? If you have a more sophisticated version of the objection, I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd like to hear it.

  2. Hi Steve,

    You're wrestling with some heavy metaphysical problems here.

    I take it that what most matters in not the law per se, but rather this intuition: it is impossible for one and the same thing to both be and not be some one way at some one time. This, without the modal operator "impossible" is what I formulated here:

    I think this (both my impossibility claim and the formulation above) fits what we all know about personal identity. And I do think it is a universal truth, being a necassary one - not a mere rule of thumb, with exceptions. And importantly, neither was formulated with theological ends in view.

    When you ask "If, however, identity is consistent with difference, then what demarcates identity from nonidentity? "
    I'm not sure what you're asking. Arguably, facts about identity/numerical sameness are going to be basic facts in reality, not decomposible into some more basic facts. To say that identity - I take it, numerical sameness - is consistent with difference - I assume you mean change, being one way at one time and then not at another time - is just to allow for the possibility and the reality of intrinsic change.

    1. "Hi Steve, you're wrestling with some heavy metaphysical problems here."

      Actually, I'm drawing attention to the fact that metaphysicians wrestle with these problems. In principle, you can begin with your intuition about numerical identity, then adjust your concept of personal identity to conform to that starting point. Or you can begin with your intuition about personal identity, then adjust your concept of personal identity to conform to that starting point. You have to bite one bullet or the other. Is numerical identity the standard of comparison, or personal identity?

      McTaggart is the rare philosopher who begins with numerical identity, resulting in a very austere conception of personal identity. By contrast, most philosophers begin with personal identity, then tweak numerical identity accordingly. Take transworld identity:

      Let's say that an A-world is simply a possible world where A is true. Stalnaker had proposed that p □→ q was true just in case the most similar p-world to the actual world is also a q-world. Lewis offered a nice graphic way of thinking about this. He proposed that we think of similarity between worlds as a kind of metric, with the worlds arranged in some large-dimensional space, and more similar worlds being closer to each other than more dissimilar worlds. Then Stalnaker's idea is that the closest p-world has to be a q-world for p □→ q to be true.

      Here, transworld identity (or counterfactual identity) is grounded in reference to the nearest-possible world. Your counterpart in the nearest possible world. That, however, parses identity in terms of similarity rather than sameness. The greatest available degree of similarity.

      But at that point we've departed from strict identity. We're operating with a looser principle.

      "I take it that what most matters in not the law per se, but rather this intuition: it is impossible for one and the same thing to both be and not be some one way at some one time."

      If you paid attention, you'd notice that I cited counterfactual identity as well as diachronic identity.

    2. Cont. "I think this (both my impossibility claim and the formulation above) fits what we all know about personal identity. And I do think it is a universal truth, being a necessary one - not a mere rule of thumb, with exceptions."

      That's unclear. In terms of concrete existence (persistence through time), personal identity is a contingent truth, not a necessary truth. Same with respect to possible existence.

      When you say "Things can qualitatively change while remaining numerically the same. That’s just common sense," you didn't derive that from Leibniz's law. Rather, you take your common sense notion of identity over time as your point of departure, then formulating a "law of identity" to accommodate change consistent with experience. But that raises questions of philosophical method. In addition, numerical identity has fuzzy boundaries if you take that route.

      "And importantly, neither was formulated with theological ends in view."

      To the contrary, your 7/21/11 reformulation of Leibniz's law had unitarianism in view. The theological framework was explicit.

      "Arguably, facts about identity/numerical sameness are going to be basic facts in reality, not decomposable into some more basic facts."

      Surely the whole point of formulating a law of identity or criteria of numerical identity presumes that's a concept which we can unpack.

      If, however, you are unable to explicate what demarcates identity from nonidentity, because those are "basic facts," then there is no definable distinction between the two. It's just a blur.

      "To say that identity - I take it, numerical sameness - is consistent with difference - I assume you mean change, being one way at one time and then not at another time - is just to allow for the possibility and the reality of intrinsic change."

      Once again, my examples included transworld identity as well as diachronic identity.

      And from my reading, personal identity is typically thought to be incompatible with "intrinsic change." Rather, some metaphysicians distinguish temporal intrinsics from temporal extrinsics. Personal identity is said to be consistent with the loss or gain of extrinsic personal properties, but not the loss or gain of intrinsic personal properties.

      Even if we grant that distinction, we didn't get that by starting with an intuition of numerical identity, but in spite of numerical identity.

  3. Hi Annoyed,

    I think that the standard two-natures answer is really bad. First, they often shift the claim from dying to going out of existence. But it is not obvious that the first entails the second, and most (including me) deny that it does. So, there's nothing incoherent about something with two parts, and one of the parts ceases to exist, but the thing still exists, because that part wasn't essential to it. (Here: the part would be the human nature.) It's other part(s), of course, may still exist.

    But the subject here is dying and being dead. If you say that "Jesus as divine can't die" - the problem is that it seems to follow that Jesus can't die. But all agree: he did, so he can.

    Some seem to imagine that it is the human nature which dies. But if a nature is a property, such can't die - mere properties can't be alive to start with! Or if it is a mere sum of body + soul, it can't (in this case) die, because it was never alive - they never constituted a living being. Rather, they were mysteriously united with the Logos, which was alive. But it's unclear why this should imply that they - the body and soul, the "complete human nature" are alive. Traditional catholic theorizing insists that the body and soul in this case, because of the mysterious union, don't constitute a human self.

    Some, if they're really logically sophisticated, will putz around with the properties in this case - so not: essentially immortal, dead - which are plainly contrary. But rather: immortal-as-divine and dead-as-human. Those are not obviously contrary... but also, no one really understands what properties these are supposed to be, if they don't imply: being essentially immortal, and being dead. If they do, we have the same sort of contradiction again. If they don't, the suggestion is just baffling.

    One changes the subject (dead human nature vs. alive divine nature), and the other the predicates. We could try, for completeness, messing with the copula - is-as-human vs. is-as-God - but, let's not do that in a combox.

    My experience in most mouths, this is a paradigm case of a merely verbal solution. I find evangelical apologists recently to be *way* overconfident - just assuming that it is going-out-of-existence which is at issue, then point out that the logos is still supposed to exist. Well sure, but the apparent contradiction is not that, but rather, than an essentially immortal being should die. That seems an obvious impossibility.

    1. I didn't see Dale's post till today (8/17/15).

      Dale, your response has multiple possible solutions within it. But you reject those solutions because they don't satisfy your extra-Biblical definition of what God can't do, viz. die. Why should we assume your definition and application of "death" and "immortality" to be the correct one (even assuming your deductions follow)?

      Jesus said, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades" (Rev. 1:17b-18). The interpretation of these verses that seems plausible to me goes like the following:

      Jesus' statement "fear not" suggests His full deity because Yahweh often told the Israelites in the OT not to fear in a similar fashion (e.g. Isa. 35:4; 41:13-14; 43:1, 5; 44:2; 54:4).

      Jesus' statement that He's "the first and the last" also suggests (or strongly implies) His full deity because that's a title of Yahweh Himself in the OT. Notice too that in Isaiah where Yahweh refers to Himself as "first and last" include chapters 41 and 44 which are also chapters where Yahweh says, "fear not."

      Jesus' statement that He's "the living one" also suggest a claim to deity since Yahweh is the Living God, the necessarily immortal one, and the very source of existence and life.

      Couple that with Jesus' statement, "I died, and behold I am alive forevermore" and it appears that Jesus is saying He's the one who eternally exists (being the first and last and living one) who in another sense died and rose again. In other words, the kind of seeming contradiction you say can't be the case. Namely, to both be immortal and yet to be able to die and rise again.