Political Theologizing sans Theology

Yale professor Paul Kahn examines politics and law using the lenses of theology and theological psychology. But it's theology without the influence of the divine.

In this interesting piece of political philosophy, Yale professor Paul Kahn examines politics and law using the lenses of theology and theological psychology. This isn’t an article on theology per se. Rather, Kahn attempts to examine politics using theology writ large.  I think he does a good job of showing the role postmodern epistemology plays in political and legal discourse. He focuses on the idea that politics (and even law) is essentially social. Political "truth" comes down to an agreement among a particular social group as defined by the political or legal system in question.

In order to be effective in these systems, one must have the power of persuasion: the ability to dialogue and simmer down disparate ideas until there is a general (though not, of course, universal) agreement. If one resorts to preaching or dictating political or legal truth, one has abandoned social discourse and so is not doing politics any longer. He plays heavily on the intuition that most of us have that ideologues and dictators both have abandoned the political process and replaced it with something much less democratic (despite the fact that they can be effective politically).

This theological background continues not just in moral theory, but also in contemporary political theory. When, for example, John Rawls argues that the basic order of a political community must be founded on an imagined contract formed behind a veil of ignorance, he is imagining the overlap of reason and will. Behind the veil, we can rely only on reason, which is the same for everyone.

Thanks to Bill Pardi for the pointer.

Full article here.

Philosophy of Religion Conference at Georgetown University

BGND Phil of Religion Conference, hosted by Georgetown University

Conference begins Thursday evening, 10/6, and runs through Saturday evening, 10/8

*Speakers (with commentators):*
Mark Henninger, SJ (Patrick Toner)
Oliver Crisp (Tom Senor)
Meghan Sullivan (Lorraine Keller)
Terence Cuneo (Karen Stohr)
Christina van Dyke (Thomas Williams)
Trenton Merricks (Todd Buras)
Hud Hudson (Blake Roeber)
Alex Pruss and Trent Dougherty (Stephen Grimm)
Lara Buchak (Mark Lance)

Please let Mark Murphy know if you'll be attending so that he can make sure the room size is appropriate. Email him at murphym@georgetown.edu

Reposted from The Prosblogion.

So Long Old Time Religion

Religion in the west is changing according to George Barna. Church attendance, belief in the accuracy of the Bible, and volunteerism are down. The number of unchurched is up. What's next?

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article in which I discussed the changing face of religion in the West. I claimed, among other things, that evangelicalism is a dying breed, church attendance is dropping and traditional views of God and the Bible are shifting, and that Christianity will look very different in ten years. In an article published July 26, 2011, the Florida Sun Sentinel summarized recent research done by the Barna Group on shifting trends in religion. The data support the conclusions I made in my article. Here are some of the trends (since 1991).

  • Church attendance fell by 9 percent
  • Belief in the accuracy of the Bible fell by 8 percent
  • Volunteer work at the church fell by 19 percent
  • Those who call themselves “born again” are still growing (up 5 percent)
  • The number of unchurched has grown significantly, up 13 percent

As I stated in my 2010 article (and in this series), the reasons for the shift are varied but I think it comes down to the growing impact science and technology has had on the daily lives of Americans and, at the same time, the shrinking role the church and God have played. I think it is an open question whether these shifts are a good or bad thing. I do believe that something will replace religion—something similar in psychological power. Environmentalism and even Darwinism seem to be viable alternates for many but a new kind of religious sentiment may emerge as well.

Time will certainly tell.

Thanks to Greg Taft for the pointer.

Full article here.

Barna blog post here.

My Philosopher Can Beat Up Your Computer Scientist

In this world of growing technological advancement, can a philosophy degree (any degree in the humanities) have any value? In this interesting article, David Horowitz outlines why a degree in the humanities and specifically philosophy is not only valuable, but is critical for being a good technologist.

In this world of growing technological advancement, can a philosophy degree (any degree in the humanities) have any value? In this interesting article, David Horowitz outlines why a degree in the humanities and specifically philosophy is not only valuable, but is critical for being a good technologist. As someone who has a graduate degree in philosophy and also works at a high-tech company, I can unequivocally say (something very hard for a philosopher to do let me tell you) that his claims are completely accurate.

The fact is, even if you work with computers all day, the business of computers is conducted with people. Not only do you rely on and collaborate with other humans to get the work done, if you want to create computer systems that humans can actually use to enhance their lives, you have to understand what it means to be human and have a solid, and balanced view of how computers and technology fit into the human condition. These are not computer science problems but philosophical ones.

I wanted to better understand what it was about how we were defining intelligence that was leading us astray: What were we failing to understand about the nature of thought in our attempts to build thinking machines?

And, slowly, I realized that the questions I was asking were philosophical questions—about the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning. So if I really hoped to make major progress in AI, the best place to do this wouldn't be another AI lab. If I really wanted to build a better thinker, I should go study philosophy.

It’s not surprising that a prominent technologist has made a similar claim particularly when you consider the company he runs.

Full article here. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

The Gettier Problem: A Study--Part 7

We’ll start our exploration of belief with a puzzle.

Reference and Meaning

We’ll start our exploration of belief with a puzzle. In his paper, “A Puzzle About Belief”[1] Saul Kripke contrasts the Millian view of names with the Frege-Russell view and in doing so discovers what seems to be a problem that is not easily solved on either theory. Kripke largely is concerned with how names function in belief contexts. While an analysis of proper names will play a role in a larger theory about belief, it will not be our only concern. Still, I think examining Kripke’s puzzle will raise some important distinctions about belief that will set up the broader discussion. We will return to proper names throughout our analysis of belief as names play a key role in some types of Gettier cases.

According to Kripke, Mill held that proper names are simple: they pick out or refer to the thing that bears it. Names on this theory should not be associated with any properties of their bearers: they do not describe the objects that bear them. On the Frege-Russell theory, names are linguistic containers for definite descriptions. They are associated with bundles of properties possessed by the things that bear them. These properties constitute the sense of the name.

On Mill's view, Mohammad Ali and Cassius Clay refer to the same individual and can be used salva veritate interchangeably (the two proper names pick out a single person and so can be substituted in sentences without changing the truth value of those sentences). On the Frege-Russell view however, referent of names are determined by descriptive properties the speaker identifies with the name. Aristotle, when described as the teacher of Alexander the Great and when described as the philosopher who studied under Plato, has two different senses though they do refer to the same object (p. 240). The way of describing Aristotle--the sense--however, does fix the reference and so the same name cum unique description could be said to refer to different objects. If Plato turned out to be the teacher of Alexander the Great, the name ‘Aristotle’ would refer to Plato since he satisfies the description.

In the first section of the paper, Kripke explores the Millian view he presented in Naming and Necessity that names, but not descriptions, could be substituted salva veritate in modal contexts. He acknowledges that his position could be seen as decidedly non-Millian in belief contexts because in these contexts, it seems that neither names nor descriptions can be substituted and be guaranteed to preserve truth value. While arguments against Mill to tend to (sometimes strongly) favor Frege-Russell, Kripke cautions that the reason one ought to be critical of Mill's position may not be due to the success of Frege-Russell. The reason is that common terms usually have common senses and these common senses could be identical even though the believer doesn't identify the referent of the term. A person could believe that Cicero is bald and Tully is not and, when asked who Cicero and Tully are, respond with, "a famous Roman orator." The description--the sense--is the identical but the believer does not understand that Cicero and Tully are the same famous Roman orator. This argument is meant to show that the failure of interchangeability of codesignative terms in belief contexts is not due to a difference in the senses of the terms based on counter-examples that show otherwise.

In section two, he presents a difficulty. If Kripke is correct in following Mill, "if reference is all there is to naming, what semantic difference can there be between" two names that reference the same thing? Is it possible for a person to believe some proposition is true without believing another proposition with a codesignative name is true? Could one believe that Allen Konigsberg directed Crimes and Misdemeanors and disbelieve that Woody Allen did? In order to address these questions, he introduces three principles:

The disquotational principle: If a normal English speaker, on reflection, sincerely assents to 'p,'[2] then he believes that p. (248-249) That is, if a person assents to a statement, then that person believes that the proposition expressed by that statement is true.

The strengthened disquotational principle: A normal English speaker who is not reticent will be disposed to sincere reflective assent to 'p' if and only if he believes that p. (249). This principle establishes that assent indicates belief and that a lack of assent indicates a lack of belief.

The principle of translation: If a sentence of one language expresses a truth in that language, then any translation of it into any other language also expresses a truth (in that other language).

Given the disquotational principle, he posits that the principle of substitutivity is incorrect. For an English speaker using the language normally can believe 'Cicero was bald' and 'Tully was not bald' without contradiction (given that he may not know that Cicero and Tully are the same person). This problem, when applying the disquotational principle, seems to tacitly support Frege-Russell. But there are problems. If the substitution of codesignative names leads to contradictions in propositional contexts, it's not clear how Frege-Russell solves them (see above -- a believer can apply the same indefinite description in order to fill out the sense of a name and still not know that the two names refer to the same individual). Further, Kripke's 'puzzle' will show that this mystery can be invoked by not using substitution of names at all. It appears in normal context when the general principles of disquotation and translation alone are applied.

In this section Kripke presents his puzzle. A "normal" French speaker, Pierre, comes to assent to the sentence "Londres est jolie" through looking at lovely pictures of the city and what he has heard. Sometime later, he moves to a particularly unattractive part of London not realizing that London and Londres refer to the same city. None of the people in his neighborhood know French so Pierre learns English by the "direct method" of not by translating French terms into English terms. Over time he learns the name of the city he is inhabiting and assents to the sentence "London is not pretty." Of course, while assenting to this sentence, he still assents to the French sentence about London above. What, then, does Pierre believe about the city? It would appear that he believes both even though they are contradictory.

One way to solve the puzzle might be to acknowledge that Frege and Russell were correct. If Pierre learns to identify both London and Londres by certain definite descriptions that are uniquely identifying, he will be forced to conclude that both terms refer to the same city. But this need not follow. For if Pierre comes to learn each of the terms used in the definite descriptions in each language by direct method, he may not realize that the describing terms themselves have the same referent. The description of London in English would be just as isolated doxastically as the description of Londres in French. Kripke argues that such problems can exist even for natural kind terms which would seem to have a prima facie resistance to this problem.

Finally, he argues that the puzzle arises even in situations where the same name is used in the same language. He considers Peter who learns of a man named Paderewski and that he was a famous pianist (and who also was a statesman but this is a fact Peter did not come to learn). He assents to the sentence, "Paderewski had musical talent." Then later, in a different context, he comes to learn of a man named Paderewski who was a Polish Prime Minister. Assuming that this man has the same name as the famous pianist but skeptical of the musical abilities of politicians, Peter assents to the sentence, "Paderewski had no musical talent." Here, Peter believes that the referent of the name "Paderewski" is satisfied by two individuals even though metaphysically they pick out the same man. What does Peter believe?

Kripke's concern is not with the "conventional judgment" that belief contexts are referentially opaque but with whether codesignative proper names are interchangeable salva veritate in belief contexts (like they are in modal contexts). Even if they are “Shakespearian” in this sense, he doesn't believe that this is enough to establish the Frege-Russell theory of reference over Mill’s. Whether Kripke’s puzzle succeeds in demonstrating this is somewhat tangential to my purpose. What Kripke’s paper demonstrates is that there is a difference in the way reference is established in belief contexts and modal or logical contexts and this is the relevant point.

Kripke’s puzzle essentially is this: a believer can appear to assent to two contradictory propositions and believe them without contradiction. This is because the truth conditions of a proposition are not always accessible from the first person point of view. Kripke demonstrates that the truth conditions and relations that may be analyzable in logical, “third-person” analyses may not hold in belief contexts because beliefs are irreducibly phenomenological. As Kripke argues in Naming and Necessity, this is partly because in logical contexts we establish the truth conditions by linguistic fiat: we can describe propositions and their relations to other propositions and the world in whatever way suits our cases as long as those relations don’t violate logical rules. This is only possible if belief as a phenomenological act is distinct from a third-person, linguistic description of the propositions believed. What is contradictory logically and even metaphysically, may not be contradictory doxastically which gives weight to the idea that belief that a proposition is true is constrained in ways that a logical analysis is not. As I’ve already suggested above and we’ll see more clearly later, this distinction is critical in dissecting what is going in many if not all Gettier counterexamples. It’s also key to understanding knowledge.


[1] Kripke, S. A. (1979). A Puzzle About Belief. In A. Margalit (Ed.), Meaning and Use. Dordrecht and Boston: Reidel.

[2] The variable 'p' in each of these principles stands for any appropriate English sentence.

The Gettier Problem: A Study--Part 6

What is the nature of a believing act? How is the content of a belief related to a speech act? How do beliefs refer to things in the world?

The Object of Belief

What is the nature of a believing act? How is the content of a belief related to a speech act? How do beliefs refer to things in the world? In its most simple formulation, believing is having a mental state that consists of a representation of the world[1]. Many philosophers describe belief in terms of an acceptance that the world is a specific way but I think this way of speaking implies that the believer is somehow actively doing something in the act of believing. While this true in many cases, it’s too restrictive for my purposes. A belief is an apprehension of the world and need not include an affirmation of it (though belief generally does have important implications for behavior—a qualification we’ll examine later).

Beliefs are usually described in terms of propositions where the belief is of the proposition and a proposition is a that clause which can be written or spoken as a fact about the world. I believe that Megan had steak for dinner or you believe that Aidan is playing his guitar. The phrase after the “that” is a description of the world that can be expressed linguistically and this description is the object of belief. That is, the object of belief is, in an important sense, the sentence or some set of properties of the sentence and it is this that of which the proposition consists.[2] This way of understanding belief is the genesis of a whole host of mistakes that have fueled Gettier-style counterexamples to JTB and is going to be the focus of my analysis. Since speaking of belief in this way typically is established (or, in most cases, assumed) at the beginning of an analysis of knowledge, this small mistake sets things off on the wrong path at the beginning and ends up leading to much larger errors that resist correction at the end.

Instead of thinking about beliefs as being about descriptions of the world, I think it’s more correct to say beliefs are representations of the world and propositions are the content of those representations. Beliefs are a mental state consisting of a way the world possibly could be. On this model, propositions are not the object of belief but the content. Propositions make up the content of the belief itself. In order to make this idea clearer, some philosophers like Shope prefer to talk about belief in terms of states of affairs rather than propositions where states of affairs just are possible ways the world could be. These distinctions tend to be subtle and philosophy since the linguistic turn has used the term proposition in a variety of ways that are at best inconsistent. Since propositions are generally held to be at the center of a believing act and since belief is an essential component of knowledge (and thus critical to understanding Gettier cases), we will need to spend some time analyzing belief with the goal of providing some clarity as to the nature and object of the believing act.


[1] This way of speaking assumes a distinction between the mind and the world and is something I won’t argue for here. This assumption is trivial however, because on a non-referential or postmodernist understanding of belief, Gettier cases carry no water to begin with.

[2] See, for example, (Ferre, 1961). Ferre argues that the locus of philosophy as a discipline is the analysis of the meaning of language (p. 6). On Ferre’s definition, belief is completely removed from the picture and language becomes the sole object of analysis. For Ferre, words in a propositional context are the locus of meaning and the philosopher’s job is to unpack this meaning. Sentences, on this view, appear not to be representative but objective.

Cheating Death

In the latest microphilosophy podcast, tpm’s editor-in-chief Julian Baggini talks to John Gray about some of the ideas that emerge from his latest book, The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Download from this link or iTunes. The podcast was recorded at the Bristol Festival of Ideas in May, at the Arnolfini.

CFP: Two CRAAI Conferences

The first is called Forms of Corruption in History and in Contemporary Society: Origins, Continuity, Evolution (CORHICS 2011) at is will be held at Paris 1 Sorbonne University, 7-9 September 2011.

For more details please see here.

The second is called Sites of Memory, Anamnesis and Representation of Identity (SMARI 2011) and it is held at Paris IV Sorbonne University, 21-23 September 2011.

For more info see here.

New OUP Book: Metaphysical Themes: 1247-1671

New Books in Philosophy discusses this title with author Robert Pasnau. The book addresses questions like,

What was the scholastic metaphysical tradition of the later Middle Ages, and why did it come “crashing down as quickly and completely” as it did towards the end of the 17th Century? Why was the year 1347 a “milestone in the history of philosophy”? And why didn’t philosophy itself collapse right along with the scholastic framework?

Hear the interview here.

The Gettier Problem: A Study—Part 5

Schmidt-Petri has shown that whether we take Smith’s belief as referential or attributive in all three cases he does not know P2 because he has not satisfied the requirements of JTB not because JTB is inadequate in some way.

Definite Descriptions and the Gettier Example

Christoph Schmidt-Petri in his “Definite Descriptions and the Gettier Example”[1] provides a framework for the argument I outlined in an earlier post in terms of a distinction between the attributive use and the referential uses of definite descriptions drawing heavily from Donnellan’s analysis of definite descriptions. A fairly standard definition of a definite description is of a term that describes a particular thing and takes the form ‘the x such that φx’ where the definite description begins (in English) with the definite article, “the x,” and can be used in any sentence. Russell held that the truth value of the definite description in the sentence “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” does not change regardless of what stands for “the man who will get the job” as long as the attribution “has ten coins in his pocket” is true of him.[2] Using “Jones” or “Smith” in place of “the man who will get the job” does not change the truth value of the sentence as long as having ten coins in his pocket can be attributed to either man. What Kripke calls names are, on Russell’s account, disguised (or, perhaps better, abbreviated) definite descriptions. It is what is attributed that is important regardless of the term we use for the object that is the recipient of the attribution.

It is easy to see how this account supports Gettier’s examples. If it turns out to be Smith that actually gets the job and not Jones, the substitution of Smith for Jones or even “the man who has ten coins in his pocket” modifies the truth value in no way as long as the sentence expresses a true proposition by attributing something true of the subject regardless of what term is used for that subject. Thus, when Smith comes to believe “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket,” the definite description, “the man who will get the job” can be replaced with a logical equivalent, “Smith” since he is the man who actually satisfies the predicate with no change in truth value.

Donnellan challenged Russell’s thesis and described two ways in which definite descriptions can be used. First, descriptions like P2 can be used attributively which is essentially Russell’s position. In attribution, we seek to assign an attribute to any object. The description in, “the businessman who started Microsoft is the richest man in the world” will yield a true proposition regardless of who that businessman is as long as that person satisfies the predicate of the sentence “is the richest man in the world.” It happens to be Bill Gates but could be anyone. Donnellan also describes a referential use of definite descriptions where the generalized term is intended to pick out a specific object and say something true about that object. In this usage, “the businessman” is intended to pick out Bill Gates specifically and describe him as the one who started Microsoft. On this usage, “the businessman who started Microsoft” refers to Bill Gates and is not satisfied by any other object.[3]

In the argument above, I outline three distinct beliefs Smith could have when attempting to understand Smith’s epistemic relation to P2 which are:

A. Jones will get the job and Jones has ten coins in his pocket

B. Smith will get the job and Smith has ten coins in his pocket

C. Some man will get the job and that man has ten coins in his pocket

Propositions A and B, I claim are specific beliefs about an individual and C is a general belief about any man whatever. Schmidt-Petri argues that Smith’s belief about P2 could be taken attributively but it could also be taken referentially but in either case, the reason Smith does not have knowledge is not due to a failure with JTB but due to Smith having a false or unjustified belief. Beliefs about referential descriptions should be taken as singular and the objects referred to in the sentence about the belief should be understood as a constituent. In attributive descriptions, the object being denoted does not contribute to the semantic content of the belief but merely to its quantificational structure. As I understand him, Schmidt-Petri is arguing that in existential propositions like ones used in attributive descriptions, the object referred to in the proposition is not related to the meaning; what the object actually refers to. Rather it is only related to the logical relation the object has to the rest of the sentence.

If taken referentially then, Smith’s beliefs would either be A or B. Smith would either believe that a particular person, Jones or Smith himself will get the job. If Smith believes A, he would not have a true belief and thus would not satisfy the requirements of JTB. If he believes B, he would have a true belief but would not be justified in believing it because he possesses no evidence that he Smith has ten coins in his pocket or that he would be getting the job and thus does not satisfy the requirements of JTB: he is not justified. Schmidt-Petri says it is certainly possible that Smith could believe C.[4] For example, he might have had evidence that every man that applied for the job was required to carry around ten coins in his pocket or that before the job is awarded, the committee deciding who gets the job gives the candidate ten coins and asks him to put them in his pocket. But Gettier in his case give us no reason to believe that Smith has any such evidence and thus most likely does not believe C. Even if he does in fact believe C, in this case he has not satisfied JTB because he lacks evidence for its truth and that is the reason Smith does not know C and, salva veritate, P2.

I would go a step further and rule out C on the grounds that Gettier tells us that Smith derived P2 from P1. We’re told that Smith believes P2 based on a deduction from P1. It seems to me that in order to derive P2 from P1, the semantic content of P1—specifically the referent of the name “Jones”--must be retained in P2—specifically the referent of the description “the man who has ten coins in his pocket”--for the entailment to be satisfied in the technical sense of that term. This would mean that Smith’s belief in P2 would contain the semantic content of P1 in some sense and gives us further reason to reject the idea that Smith believes C as an attributive belief.

Regardless, Schmidt-Petri has shown that whether we take Smith’s belief as referential (he believes A or B) or attributive (he believes C) in all three cases he does not know P2 because he has not satisfied the requirements of JTB not because JTB is inadequate in some way.


[1] Definite Descriptions and the Gettier Example, Christoph Schmidt-Petri, LSE , Centre for the Philosophy of the Natural and Social Science (DP 63/02). See also his “Is Gettier’s First Example Flawed?” in Knowledge and Belief. Papers of the 26th Int. Wittgenstein Symposium (Contributions of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, Vol XI), ed. W. Löffler and P. Weingartner, Kirchberg: The Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, 2003: pp. 317-319.

[2] Schmidt-Petri describes Russell’s view of definite descriptions in terms of the existential statement ∃x (Fx & ∀(Fy →y=x)&Gx)): There is at least one x such that, F is true of x and for every y, if F is true of y then y is identical to x, and G is true of x. There is at least one thing such that that thing is a man and for any other thing, if that thing is a man then that thing is identical to first thing and the first thing has 10 coins in his pocket. The variable 'y' establishes the identity of any individual for whom the attribution is true.

[3] Saul Kripke uses the term “referent of the description” to refer to the referential usage of definite descriptions though in a footnote, he introduces the term “semantic referent” as the referent of a name or description. So if one man says to another, “Jones is over there raking leaves” but it’s actually Smith, the semantic referent is Smith, the man raking leaves even though the name “Jones” was used for him. The referent of the name “Jones” is Smith if the speaker uses Jones to “label” Smith in referring to the object. In the case of a definite description, e.g. “the man” (Kripke uses the term “description” here but I take him to mean a definite description), whatever satisfies the predicate of the sentence “is raking leaves” is the semantic referent. Note that Kripke appears to say nothing here about how reference is transferred by logical deduction. He appears to be only concerned with direct reference. If I see two men under a tree and one is raking leaves and the other is napping, when I refer to “the man who is raking leaves,” the definite description picks out the man who is raking leaves not the napping man. See Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980), 25,26, footnote 3

[4] Schmidt-Petri writes C as the existential statement: ∃x (Fx & ∀y (Fy → y=x) & Gx) and refers to this statement as the proper way to understand C as an attributive belief.