Reason and the First Person -- personhood and God

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, chapter 20, can be found here.]

[This entry starts Chapter 21, "Some Detours".]

Setting aside (but only for the moment) my concerns about the question of the relations of Independent Action to derivative actions (such as my own), and whether this is an intrinsically contradictory proposition, I continue safely (though a bit shakily) along the path; with the security that there are at least a few situations where what may be called my 'actions' are yet reconcilable with an ultimate Act-er. Thus the proposal of an ultimate Act-er is not yet deducted from the option list; leaving the branch of not-atheisms intact--perhaps with a point in favor of pantheism--as opposed to the branch of atheisms.

Very well: if I take seriously the value of my judgments (that value which transcends the question of whether I am correct or incorrect on any given judgment) then I must be able to initiate action--or, at least (keeping in mind the problem from my most recent chapter) initiated actions exist and are exhibited through me. I have discovered it is contradictory for me to claim this value or property of my judgments is produced by a reality that at bottom does not itself initiate actions.

Furthermore: the actions this reality at bottom initiates, must themselves exhibit (at least) the property I assign to my own judgments. It is useless to say that these ultimate actions are somehow 'initiated' and nothing more; that would be merely to use 'initiate' in a reductively metaphorical fashion. An atheist might perhaps claim that Nature 'initiates' events at the quantum level, for instance; but she would deny this means that Nature can 'think'--or (really) even 'act'.

Yet as I have discovered, while this could perhaps be the case, such a situation would still result in a reality where only non-rational events ultimately take place; leaving me with no rationality of my own to properly judge the cogency of proposals, including the proposal of atheism (of this or any other sort). Any attempt to propose something different along the branch of atheism, eventually requires that I justify my ability to justify: an intrinsically impossible requirement.

This leaves me with the branch of not-atheisms to consider: God exists. But what does this mean? What are the properties of God? Once again, I begin to deduct propositions which I find to be contradictory: which either cancel themselves out, or else deny positions I have previously deduced to be necessary.

At this stage, I would begin to import a series of arguments parallel to the ones I already covered in Section One.

Let me point out, before I am misunderstood, that I began my attempts at positive deduction in this Section without formally requiring the positions I will shortly re-present. Here is where they would fall if I had started with this argument instead. In the protracted argument of Section One, they obviously fell in a different place, for that was a somewhat different line of reasoning.

This 'God' I have discovered: how shall I speak of it? Is it a personality, or not? The answer to that question depends on the answer to this question: does it make sense to claim that an initiating thinker exists and yet that it has no personality?

The only answer I can effectively give is this: to claim an initiating thinker has no personality, is a non sequitur. What would it mean "to have no personality"? As far as I can tell, it would mean the entity in question does not contribute actively (and thus willfully uniquely) to its reality.

But that is exactly what this sentient Independent Fact does. Indeed, it contributes more actively and intentively to reality (even as the foundation of all reality, including itself--thus being the Independent Fact) than anything else in reality (if anything else does at all). To that extent, at the very least, I should consider it to have a real personality; and I may yet discover further parallels, as I ponder the topic.

Then should I speak of this personal entity (i.e., a 'personal-ity' or 'personality') as an 'it'? Or should I use personal pronouns?

The answer seems obvious the moment I ask the question: I should use a 'personal' pronoun set when speaking of a 'person'. Not only is this proper in English when speaking of a person, but (rather more importantly than the mere politeness) to insist on speaking of the entity as an 'it' (even with a capital 'I'!) can only tacitly reinforce in my mind a characteristic of the entity which I have already decided is false: that 'It', despite its active rationality, has no personality.

I am a person writing in English, and I do virtually all my speaking in English. The English language does not, at this time, have a personal pronoun set for a neuter entity; for the very practical reason that we do not commonly find ourselves in recognized contact with entities which are truly personal yet are neither male nor female. We therefore must default to a masculine or feminine pronoun set if we wish to discuss personal entities whose status in this regard is either unknown or not applicable; and for various sociological reasons, in English we use the masculine pronouns as the default or ‘neuter’ set.

In lieu of further data regarding this entity, I therefore would find it fitting to speak of God in English with nominally 'masculine' terms: He is a person. To say instead 'She is a person' would entail a level of specificity which at this stage I have no grounds to introduce; for in traditional English usage, a 'she' is never an unknown or unknowable quality when speaking of a real specific person.

English-speaking sailors, for instance, often use feminine pronouns to speak about their ships; but nominally the ships are not real persons so it doesn't matter which set is used, except in an aesthetic sense. I will not utterly deny the concept that a nominally non-sentient object may in some fashion be granted a real though derivative sentience--after all, that is what I will end up proposing about the relationship between God and us humans--nor that God may have granted, to us derivative entities, the ability to bestow a rudimentary but real sub-consciousness on such objects through what amounts to our wished love and affection. I might, in other words, accept that ships whose crews truly act to love them could indeed develop a rudimentary sentience and can therefore be truly spoken of with personal pronouns. If that sounds supernatural, I remind you that the relations between God and ourselves might also be established as supernatural (depending on whether or not pantheism is true); thus the implausibility of the concept could vanish from that quarter. Whether other conceptual barriers or inconsistencies might prevent such an occurrence is a further question, and at any rate lies outside the scope of this book--although I find the topic very interesting!

My point, is that even if this was true, the personality would be conferred by us persons, and thus to that extent the personal gender would also likely be conferred by us if there are no biological considerations to force the issue. Put another way: I have been told that Russians typically speak of their ships using masculine pronouns; and tend therefore to ascribe masculine attributes to their ships. If this process did develop a rudimentary and double-derivative sentience--if the ship did somehow receive a real 'spirit' through this process--then I would expect the 'spirit' of a well-loved Russian ship to be masculine in its thought-and-behavior matrix, and an American ship to be feminine. But we would be the ones creating this characteristic in the artifact.

God, by contrast, is a person Whose existence and basic character precede my (or our) relationship with Him. It is my task to discover those characteristics if I can, not create new ones for Him (as if that was possible).

Thus, lacking a masculine/feminine relationship criterion, I must default in English, so far, to the neutral pronoun set; and for us, that is the masculine. [See first comment below for an extended footnote here.]

But am I restricted to using the masculine set only because I lack a proper set? That is, if I learned to speak another language which actually has a distinctive neuter pronoun set (or if we developed such a set for English), should I stop speaking of God as 'He'?

I think there is at least one more reason why God should be spoken of using masculine pronouns. However, I shall have to defer this reasoning briefly until a few other points are established.

[Next up: independence and God]


Jason Pratt said…
[Extended footnote...]

You may have noticed I switch genders when speaking of hypothetical people in this book. I do this so you (and I!) can more easily distinguish between certain 'characters'. I would also be satisfied if my readers understood this to mean that men and women both may have varying opinions about philosophy; but again I am speaking of derivative entities who really must be male or female--or else discussed as neuter and thus, in English, as masculine.

I know there are well-intentioned people who would also relegate the female pronoun set to neutral equivalence, in order to overcome the naturally bigoted associations we humans can easily fall prey to: if we use the masculine as the default pronoun set, it is sadly true that some people will tend to hear 'men' as 'men' rather than as a convenient placeholder for 'humans', leading to (or more probably reinforcing) a view that only males can or should be thought of as relating to such matters.

I do understand and have sympathy for this problem; yet I question whether the reduction of the feminine pronoun set to neuter equivalency is the answer. In a culture where people rightly wish to help protect the status of women as recognized people, it seems to me dangerous to take words specially distinctive to women and drain them of that distinction. I do not want to treat women as ciphers in any sense, even linguistically. (I always imagine my fictional examples in this book to be persons, just like literary characters.)

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