Saturday, March 18, 2023

Cyrillus Hierosolymitanus

 Today is the feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Doctor of the Church. From his Catechetical Lectures (5.3):

Nor is it only among us, who bear the name of Christ, that the dignity of faith is great : but likewise all things that are accomplished in the world, even by those who are aliens from the Church, are accomplished by faith. 

 By faith the laws of marriage yoke together those who have lived as strangers: and because of the faith in marriage contracts a stranger is made partner of a stranger's person and possessions. By faith husbandry also is sustained, for he who believes not that he shall receive a harvest endures not the toils. By faith sea-faring men, trusting to the thinnest plank, exchange that most solid element, the land, for the restless motion of the waves, committing themselves to uncertain hopes, and carrying with them a faith more sure than any anchor. By faith therefore most of men's affairs are held together: and not among us only has there been this belief, but also, as I have said, among those who are without. For if they receive not the Scriptures, but bring forward certain doctrines of their own, even these they accept by faith.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Divine Impassibility

 R. T. Mullins has a relatively recent article, Closeness with God: A Problem for Divine Impassibility, at the Journal of Analytic Theology, in which, as you might expect, he argues that closeness with God is a problem for divine impassibility. Nothing in the article is particularly new, or indeed all that interesting, but divine impassibility is in itself interesting, and it's worth pointing out the errors that Mullins makes in discussing the topic, in the hope that others avoid them.

We can begin to see the problems from Mullins's first characterization:

The majority of Christian theologians throughout history have said that God cannot be moved by creatures to feel anything. God does not literally have empathy, mercy, or compassion. Instead, God only feels pure undisturbed happiness. This view is called divine impassibility.

None of these are quite correct. For instance, most theologians who have accepted the doctrine of divine impassibility have held that "God has mercy", taken literally, is true. The obvious reason for it is that they would deny that mercy requires passibility. Empathy and compassion are somewhat more plausible, because the very names have elements (pathos, passio) that seem to imply passibility; however, on compassion, at least, the usual claim is that while compassion in us involves passibility, there is an activity involved in it that we can attribute to God, so "God has compassion" is also literally true, although God's compassion (perhaps unsurprisingly) is somewhat different from our own, because it lacks the particular aspect of passibility. It's a little odd to say that "God only feels pure undisturbed happiness" because happiness has historically not been seen as a feeling at all -- the view that happiness is a feeling only became dominant in the past two hundred years or so. The classical view is that we don't know what God's 'inner emotional life' is like, because we are not God; but in any case, if we are going to call how God acts toward us 'happiness', there are lots of other things we can legitimately call it, as well -- including 'mercy', 'love', and so forth.

The first sentence admits of a correct interpretation, but the natural reading of it leaves the impression that the doctrine of impassibility is about feeling. This is not really the focus of the doctrine. Passibility is not primarily about feelings, although our feelings are tied to our passibility, which is why some of them are called passions. Passibility is about being such that you must undergo things. God, however, is purely active and has no potentiality; He can't undergo anything. As I said, in our own case, some of the ways we are passible are called passions, for precisely the fact that they are things we are forced to undergo by the world around us. If I come up to you and slap you in the face, you will find certain effects forced on you, over which you will have only limited control: surprise, pain, anger, bewilderment, and so forth. But it need not be feelings. If I shine a light directly into your eyes, for instance, you will be forced to undergo it and to react it. The doctrine of divine impassibility says that nothing can be forced onto God like this. One reason why it has been so common to think of God as impassible is that there is very good reason to think that passibility is a sign of destructibility. The passibility of your visual system means I can blind you by overpowering it; the passibility involved with pain and passions is what makes torturing people and breaking them possible. The physical passibility of a body means it can be torn apart. Everywhere we look, things are destructible in the way they are passible. But God obviously is not destructible; God cannot be overpowered; God cannot be forced in any way, and therefore cannot be forced to undergo anything; in fact, God doesn't undergo things, because everything other than God presupposes His action, not vice versa.

You'll notice that I keep saying 'passions', not 'emotions'. These terms are often thrown together today, but historically they would not have been, for the obvious fact that etymologically they are opposites. 'Passion' literally means you are moved, stirred up; emotion means you move something, stir it up. 'Passion' suggests a kind of passivity; 'emotion' suggests a kind of activity. In contemporary English they have become muddled together, but it's obviously going to be relevant here, since while the doctrine of divine impassibility rules out God having 'passions' in the original sense, it doesn't rule out God having 'emotions' in the original sense. Mullins correctly recognizes the latter, but fails to consider that this could indicate a problem that the field of things being talked about is muddled and not entirely coherent, due to the historical mingling of two very different ways of talking about human interaction with the world.

When Mullins tries to characterize empathy, he does so as follows:

EMPATHY: Sally empathizes with Ben if and only if (i) Sally is consciously aware that Ben is having an emotion E, (ii) Sally is consciously aware of what it feels like to have E, and (iii) on the right basis Sally is consciously aware of what it is like for Ben to have E.

On the basis of this, Mullins argues that the doctrine of divine impassibility implies that only (i) could be true of God. (ii) can't apply, because God doesn't know "what it feels like" to experience misery because He only feels happiness and because God cannot know "what it is like" to experience emotions in a way that depends on external things. (iii) can't apply, because God can't be influenced by things other than Himself and therefore can't experience others.

Whether or not Mullins's characterization of empathy is a good one, Mullins is incorrect; (ii) and (iii) of his characterization can apply to God. God knows what it feels like to experience misery, and He knows what it is like to experience emotions forced on one by external things, not because He has experienced these things but because He invented the experiences. They only exist because He conceived of them and created beings who could have them. What is more, our knowledge of these things is vague and dim and sensory-based; God's knowledge has none of these limitations, so He knows these things better than we do. The mistake made here (common among passibilists) is assuming that you can only know feelings and emotions by experiencing them; that is at least more or less true of us (although it's questionable whether it's always true even of us), but there is no reason to think it is true of the omniscient Creator who made us, and without whose fully knowledgeable creation none of those feelings would exist at all.

The reason that impassibilists have tended to hold that 'empathy' can apply only metaphorically to God is that, unlike compassion, which involves a much more complicated range of behavior and is used in a much wider range of contexts, 'empathy' seems in its normal usage specifically to highlight undergoing the same thing as someone else. If one interprets Mullins's account of empathy as requiring this, then 'empathy' in Mullins's sense could only apply to God metaphorically. But the characterization doesn't actually say this. (ii) is put entirely in terms of 'conscious awareness', which in his arguments he treats as a kind of knowledge; but God has knowledge. He has the most and best knowledge of everything. What's more, as classically understood, God's knowing something is a precondition for anyone else knowing it; it's just that under impassibility He knows things without having to undergo them, because His knowledge is a precondition for their existence. So nothing in (ii) requires that 'empathy' in Mullins's sense be applied to God only metaphorically. The 'on the right basis' in (iii) might be taken as requiring some sort of undergoing; except that Mullins also characterizes it in terms of knowledge, which God has in superabundance, by nature and perhaps by will, not by being forced to endure things the way we sometimes are. "God does not need to learn anything from the school of hard knocks" is not the same as saying "God does not know what we only know from the school of hard knocks."

Mullins of course does the usual bait-and-switches that passibilists have historically loved ("Ooh, God sounds like a psychopath!"), which can be dismissed as childish nonsense, particularly since he's failed to formulate an account of empathy that doesn't apply literally to God, and more than that, because He never bothers to consider the obvious next question even if it didn't, which would be whether 'empathy' can be applied metaphorically to God in a way that is relevant to this question. Like a great many people, Mullins seems not to grasp that when we speak metaphorically, we nonetheless say meaningful things, and therefore if a term applies not literally but metaphorically, that doesn't dismiss the term but just changes the way we approach investigating it. He also says that there is "zero evidence" of impassibility in the Bible, but this is just because he has a bad habit of assuming that if there's a thesis about God that he doesn't like that it must have just been made up randomly by some people for no reason; he never bothers to ask what people were reflecting on that led to their acceptance of it in the first place. In the case of impassibility, it's what it means for God to be Creator, what it means for God to have foreknowledge, what it means for God to be everlasting, what it means for God to be sovereign over all, all of which can be supported by Scriptural evidence. Mullins no doubt thinks that the evidence has been misinterpreted, but to claim that it isn't there is merely a disingenuous attempt to make his argument easier. 

After all, passibility is not directly stated in Scripture, either; it requires interpreting feeling-terms applied to God as both (a) applied in a sense that requires passibility and (b) applied literally. That neither of these can just be assumed can be seen from the many physical expressions and the many obvious metaphors that Scripture uses to talk about God, and from the fact that many of these usages are clearly emphasizing not divine passiveness but divine activity. Mullins wants to argue that there is a sharp and obvious distinction between physical and 'emotional' cases, but this is simply false; a very large portion of the latter occur in contexts where the former is occurring, also. The emotional expressions are very often associated with the divine face, the divine arms, the fire of God's breath, and so forth. The impassibilists can accept all these passages; they just hold that in each case the terms are either used in ways that don't imply passibility or that they are used as metaphors to describe divine actions. Describing something by a metaphor doesn't imply that you don't think it exists; if wrath, compassion, patience, etc., are applied to God metaphorically, they are describing something, and what is more, one could perfectly well say that the metaphors are the best ways we have in our language to describe them. We just can't assume that they have all the baggage they would bring if they were used literally. This is nothing particularly new; we often have to do this even with human beings, which is why so much of our language for describing people is metaphorical. And becomes more and more so when we talk about saints, and heroes, and geniuses, who seem sometimes to be a little less passible in their knowledge, or will, or character, than the rest of us. How much more would this have to be the case for God?

And likewise there can be no problem with 'closeness to God'. God knows our feelings better than we know them ourselves, because He knows us better than we know ourselves. All our knowledge of any person in our lives is but a dim and wavering shadow compared to what God knows of us. His love is impassible and can never be overpowered, never turned aside. The difficulty in the relationship is all on our side. And why? Because our love is passible, our minds are passible, our bodies are passible, and thus we can waver, get knocked off course, get overpowered, break down, when it comes to matters of knowledge and love. And how is this problem dealt with? By becoming less passible. By virtues, which steady us and strengthen us, and by relying on God's greater (because wholly impassible) reliability.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Visions of Wind and Sun, of Field and Stream

by Archibald Lampman

Over the dripping roofs and sunk snow-barrows,
 The bells are ringing loud and strangely near,
 The shout of children dins upon mine ear
Shrilly, and like a flight of silvery arrows
Showers the sweet gossip of the British sparrows,
 Gathered in noisy knots of one or two,
 To joke and chatter just as mortals do
Over the day's long tale of joys and sorrows;
Talk before bed-time of bold deeds together,
Of theft and fights, of hard-times and the weather,
Till sleep disarm them, to each little brain
Bringing tucked wings and many a blissful dream,
Visions of wind and sun, of field and stream,
And busy barnyards with their scattered grain.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Evening Note for Wednesday, March 15

 Thought for the Evening: The Valentinian Theology of Sacraments

Most Gnostic forms of Christianity clearly established themselves in opposition to the the episcopal system that structured the Church. But the Gnostic movement that most threatened the Church was in part such a threat because it deliberately did not do this; it grew up inside the Church, incubating within it, overlaying it. These were the Valentinians, and of all the heretics of the second and third centuries, only the contemporary Marcionites left a more lasting impression on the Church.

Valentinus is said to have been born in Egypt, and probably spent quite a bit of time in Alexandria. According to the Valentinians themselves, he was a student of a man named Theudas, who was a student of St. Paul. We don't know what the truth of this is, but it indicates an important aspect of the Valentinian movement: they took themselves to have the authentic Christian message. Eventually Valentinus ended up in Rome, probably about the mid-130s and stayed there until his death in about 170 to 180. He began preaching and teaching, and he made an impact; Valentinus was an immensely talented and charismatic man. He worked entirely within the structure of the local Christian community, but the movement became a force to be reckoned with, almost managing to make him Bishop of Rome in the mid-140s. As a Gnostic, Valentinus held that the material world was the result of error and failure in the Godhead, which he called the Totality or the Fullness. The Fullness was rooted in the incomprehensible and unknowable Father, who emanated the Son; from the Son (but still within the Fullness) emanated the eternal Church, which he called the Aeon of aeons, a single spiritual super-angel that included as part of itself an assembly of other super-angels. 'Aeon of aeons' in the Bible is usually translated as 'forever and ever', or something similar, but this is the essential feature of Valentianian exegesis -- everything in the text is reified and personified into some spiritual being emanating from another spiritual being. The result (which St. Irenaeus complains about) is that unlike many other Gnostics, they used a very Christian vocabulary -- pretty much every term used by the Valentinians comes from Scripture somewhere -- but they would always translate it by an elaborate theogonical allegory into a very different esoteric meaning (one in which, for instance, the Son and the Logos were distinct beings), which they passed around in secret study groups within the Church. Tensions between these study groups and the rest of the local community of Christians led eventually to the Valentinians setting up on their own, but it was a long slow process.

One of the interesting things about the Valentinians is that they provide a distinct witness to the structure of sacramental life in the mid to late second century. After all, the Valentinian sacraments originally just were the sacraments of the larger Christian community, seen through layers of Gnostic allegory. Obviously because of the highly allegorical interpretations they gave them, and also because there was a divergence over time, this has to be handled carefully as evidence. But the orthodox often treat the sacramental life of their day as just obvious background, and will mention it but not explain much; the Valentinians, because they allegorized everything, sometimes explicitly talk about it. So the Valentinians are potentially useful witnesses to the sacramental structure even of the orthodox and non-Valentinian Church. Particularly useful in this regard is the Gospel of Philip, which identifies five sacraments:

1. Baptism
2. Chrism
3. Eucharist
4. Redemption
5. Nymphon

Baptism is explicitly associated with resurrection of the dead into new life; this was interpreted spiritually. Again, the Valentinian baptism seems to have begun as standard baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but later Valentinians adapted the formula in various ways, and at least some of them baptized in the Name of the Unknown Father, the Son, and the Truth that is Mother of all, where the Name is one of their aeonic emanations within the Fullness. Nonetheless, they make clear the importance of baptism in the second-century Church, and often talk about it in ways that, verbally at least, would still be recognizable today.

However, the Valentinians held that chrism was an even more important sacrament than baptism. In a passage that is very worth quoting, the Gospel of Philip says:

The chrism is superior to baptism, for it is from the word "Chrism" that we have been called "Christians," certainly not because of the word "baptism". And it is because of the chrism that "the Christ" has his name. For the Father anointed the Son, and the Son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us. He who has been anointed possesses everything. He possesses the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit. The Father gave him this in the bridal chamber; he merely accepted (the gift). The Father was in the Son and the Son in the Father. This is the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is, despite some slight garbling and allegorizing, recognizably a version of the rite that is today called confirmation or chrismation, whose meaning still could be characterized as "the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit" and as making us like Christ. 

The eucharist in Valentinian theology was characterized as a wedding-feast in which we partake of life-giving bread from heaven and grace-filled wine of the Spirit. According to the Gospel of Philip, "The Eucharist is Jesus." In partaking of it, we take on "the living man".

The other two sacraments are trickier. But from what we can gather from our sources, these different sacraments -- which seem to be adaptations of major Church baptismal liturgies, such as one might have at Easter -- were read allegorically as depicting what happens to the souls of the saved after they die. The redemption is associated with the ascension of the soul into the heavenly realms, renouncing and being ransomed from the fallen world of matter. St. Irenaeus complains that every Valentinian group tends to do this sacrament differently, but the  prayers that he claims are sometimes associated with it have patterns very similar to a baptismal exorcism.

The nymphon is the distinctive Valentinian sacrament. It means 'bridal chamber' and it does have something to do with marriage, but it's a spiritual marriage. In the Valentian theology, the aeons emanate in pairs, a masculine and a feminine, and within the Fullness in the proper sense the masculine and feminine are in harmonious union with each other. However, our corrupt, fallen, material world arose when some aeons attempted to conceive things without regard for the essential harmony with their consorts, thus estranging themselves. All of us have a heavenly aeonic consort from whom we are alienated, and to return to God, we must restore union with them. This is done spiritually in the sacrament of the bridal chamber, and finally and consummatively after death when the spirits of the redeemed fully unite with their bridegroom-angels. As the Gospel of Philip puts it:

If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this, Christ came to repair the separation, which was from the beginning, and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation, and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed, those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him.

Since St. Irenaeus seems to have regarded the bridal chamber sacrament as the weirdest part of the Valentinian liturgy, one could argue that this Valentinian sacrament was a complete de novo invention of the Valentinians, used to initiate people into their groups. Some people have argued that in fact it was an elaborately allegorized and ritualized version of imposition of hands, which could also very well be the case, given the things that are said about it, because it's sometimes associated with receiving what seem to be charismatic gifts, as you became imbued with your aeonic bridegroom and the grace of it overflowed. 

The Valentinians, recall, originally began by allegorizing the same Scripture and liturgy that the rest of the Christian community used; thus while we have to take much of the content with a grain of salt, the structural elements of the Valentinian sacramental theology can with a fair degree of probability be held to be based on what was liturgically important in the second century. Just as the weird Valentinian theology of the aeons can be evidence, used cautiously, for which parts of Scripture Christians of the day kept coming back to, because the Valentinians were originally allegorizing precisely those parts of Scripture, so too the Valentinian theology of sacraments gives us a foggy mirror-image of the sacramental life of the community as a whole, because originally the Valentinian theology of sacraments was just a highly allegorized interpretation of that sacramental life. From this we see (again, without complete certainty, but with high probability) that besides baptism and the eucharist, the second-century church had an important chrism-based sacrament that is recognizable even through Valentinian interpretations as confirmation. We also see that there were important rituals of exorcism or at least of some kind of renunciation of evil. Something like imposition of hands seems to be suggested by the Valentinian sacrament of nymphon, but even if it was a point at which the Valentinians were being innovative, the way it is developed establishes very clearly that marriage was regarded as an important matter, capable of reflecting heavenly matters. Many of the ways in which the Valentinians talk about these things have recognizable similarities to later orthodox discussions that seem to owe nothing to the Valentinian movement; although, of course, they are interwoven with the aeonic theology and the esoteric interpretations that make the Valentinians Gnostics.

Various Links of Interest

* Lawrence Nolan and John Whipple, Self-Knowledge in Descartes and Malebranche (PDF)

* Giannis Stammatellos and Dionysis Mentzeniotis, The Notion of Infinity in Plotinus and Cantor (PDF)

* Craig Warmke, Electronic Coins (PDF)

* Andrew J. Miller, From His Fullness: Reflecting God's Aseity, at "Modern Reformation"

* Jonathan Haidt, Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest

* Edward Feser, Great Scot, reviews Thomas Ward's Ordered by Love: An Introduction to John Duns Scotus, at "First Things"

* Ben Landau-Taylor and Samo Burja, Our Knowledge of History Decays Over Time, at "Palladium"

Currently Reading

Pius II, Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope
Tikhon Pino, Essence and Energies: Being and Naming God in St. Gregory Palamas
Moses Mendelssohn, Moses Mendelssohn's Hebrew Writings

In Audiobook

Hobbes, Leviathan

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Deeseis, Proseuchas, Enteuxeis, Eucharistias

 Therefore I beg, first of all, for there to be made petitions, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, on behalf of all humanity, on behalf of rulers and all in authority, so that we may pass time in a quiet and still life in all piety and probity. This is splendid and welcome before the face of our Savior, God, who wishes all humanity to be saved and to come to discernment of truth; for 'one God, therefore one intermediary between God and humanity', the human Christos Iesous, who having given himself a ransom on behalf of all, the witness for each one's opportunity, for which I was appointed town-crier and delegate -- I speak truth, I lie not -- instructor of nations in faith and truth. 

I therefore want men in every place to pray, raising holy hands without wrath and argument. And women, likewise, in decorous attire with modesty and temperance, should not decorate themselves with plaits or gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but with what is proper to women announcing godliness through good works. Let a woman learn in stillness, in complete submission. However, I do not allow woman to teach or dominate man, but to be in stillness. For Adam first was made, then Heua, and Adam was not deceived but woman became thoroughly deceived. But she will be saved through maternity, if they abide in faith and devotion and purification with temperance.

[1 Timothy 2:1-15, my very rough translation. This was very difficult, and I still don't really know what is meant by the phrase I translated as "the witness for each one's opportunity"; my best guess is that it is saying that Christ is the evidence (martyrion) that each will have their chance (kairios) to be saved. The last part, on women, is very obscure, because he seems to keep jumping around. The entire passage occurs after Paul has been noting some serious behavioral problems and abuses, charging Timothy to war against those who have caused 'shipwreck' through some kind of blasphemy. Thus I don't think anything this passage can be regarded as a general guide; he is explicitly laying down instructions for bringing order back to a church that is apparently in chaos. Despite the seriousness of the subject, I am slightly amused that Paul's diagnosis of the problems that immediately need to be addressed is that the men are arguing angrily and the women trying to lord it over (authentein, dominate, pull rank on, take up arms against, act domineeringly toward) the men; this is not an unheard-of problem in churches that are breaking down, even today. I remember when I was young, the Southern Baptist church that my family attended underwent a break-up (this is not uncommon in Baptist churches), and the tumult is described by Paul to a T. 

It's important, I think, to see that his recommendations at the end go together and are not (as they often are treated in how this passage is divided) distinct -- the men are guilty of orge (wrath, passionateness, heatedness) and dialogismos (reasoning, argument, debate), which in context are clearly sins against the virtue of sophrosyne (temperance, self-control, self-restraint), which is explicitly mentioned twice as what the women need to cultivate. In both cases, Paul's admonition is, more or less, "Get a grip on yourselves, people!" And while it's perhaps not immediately obvious, it's not the women alone who are being told to be 'still'. The whole passage insists right at the beginning that everybody needs to pray for a quiet and still life, and the men are criticized for acting inconsistently with that, just as much as the women are.

The words for prayer at the beginning are interesting. Deeseis is related to the word for 'need', so it is sometimes translated as 'entreaties'; proseuchas is a fairly straightforward word for 'prayers'; eucharistias, of course, means 'thanksgivings' and is the word that gives us the term 'Eucharist'. Enteuxeis is a little trickier; it literally means something like 'interventions', but seems also to have the meaning of approaching an authority to get them to intervene, so it is often translated as 'intercessions' or 'supplications'. The words Paul applies to himself are also interesting; he is keryx kai apostolos, "herald and apostle", as it is usually translated, didaskolos ethnon, "teacher of nations". I think it's plausible that these are intended as a deliberate contrast to what follows, as Paul pulls out his full authority to quell the opposition: the men keep arguing, but Paul proclaims the salvation of Christ Jesus as Jesus's own ambassador; the women keep wanting to teach the men, but Paul teaches the nations.

The beginning of this passage, 1 Timothy 2:3, is often used by universalists, but Paul is not being rosy-viewed here; the passage is sandwiched between saying he has handed people over to Satan to teach them not to blaspheme by false teachings and putting strict restrictions on everyone else. The claims are also not unqualified in context; God wishes all to be saved and to discern the truth, and this clearly connects with what Paul describes as his mission, to teach the nations in faith and truth. God wishes all to be saved and to know the truth and therefore he sent Paul (who in the previous chapter noted explicitly talks about having been saved by Christ). Thus it really identifies the guiding principle of his intervention: the false teachers, the dissentious quarrelers, the presumptuous status-seekers, are all interfering with the kind of salvation and knowledge God wishes all to have.]

Monday, March 13, 2023

Ghost Worlds

 David Lewis's Counterfactuals is an interesting work, because it has many interesting insights but one can also see in it the beginning of a number of pathologies that have become common in analytic use of possible worlds. Lewis glosses 'possible worlds' as "'ways things could have been'" (p. 84) but also wants to say that our actual world is exactly one of the possible worlds:

Our actual world is only one world among others. We call it alone actual not because it differs in kind from all the rest but because it is the world we inhabit. The inhabitants of other worlds may truly call heir own worlds actual, if they mean by 'actual' what we do; for the meaning we give to 'actual' is such that it refers at any world i to that world i itself. (pp. 85-86)

This is (unlike what you often find) a correct interpretation of how the 'actuality' operator works in cases in which it is added to possible world semantics; it just established a privileged world, for whatever reason one wishes. This is, I think, a good reason for thinking that the 'actuality operator' no more captures the actuality of the actual world than the 'existential quantifier' captures the existence of an existing thing; but set this aside. However, there is a tension between thinking in this way and thinking of possible worlds as 'ways things could have been'. We see this in an inadvertent slip:

Among my common opinions that philosophy must respect (if it is to deserve credence) are not only my naive belief in tables and chairs, but also my naive belief that these tables and chairs might have been otherwise arranged. Realism about possible worlds is an attempt, the only successful attempt I know of, to systematize these preexisting modal opinions. (p. 88)

These tables and chairs might have been otherwise arranged. Which ones? The ones in the actual world, which Lewis insists is just one possible world, and therefore cannot possibly be otherwise than it is.

This is, of course, the reason why Lewis has his famous difficulties with transworld identity. Considering the case of Ripov, who does not bribe a judge but could have done so, he sets up a dilemma. Either there has to be transworld identity -- one and the same Ripov exists in multiple worlds -- or a counterpart relation -- the Ripov of this world is similar although different to the Ripov of another world. Lewis, while recognizing that there is some inconvenience to it, chooses the second:

The best thing to do, I think, is to escape the problems of transworld identity by insisting that there is nothing that inhabits more than one world....Things that do inhabit worlds -- people, flames, buildings, puddles, concrete particulars generally -- inhabit one world each, no more. Our Ripov is a man of our world, who does not reappear elsewhere. Other worlds may have Ripovs of their own, but none of these is our Ripov. Rather, they are counterparts of our Ripov....What our Ripov cannot do in person at other worlds, not being present there to do it, he may do vicariously through his counterparts. (p. 39)

Thus, this Ripov cannot in fact do otherwise than he does; the different possible worlds do not capture the ways this Ripov could have been. Why then are they relevant? They're just different worlds, ghost worlds from our perspective, but different worlds. The root problem here is thinking of possible worlds as worlds at all. They are not ghostly other worlds. How could they be? If they were ghostly other worlds, how would we know anything about them? Why would they be relevant to what happens in our world, any more than having a doppelganger across the ocean says anything about your own modalities? Yet it takes no extensive reading to see that this treatment of possible worlds, that other possible worlds are phantom worlds separate from our own, completely distinct from our own, and that there are ghost-people and ghost-things existing in these ghost-worlds, about which we have some sort of magical clairvoyant knowledge, is found all throughout analytic discussions of modality.

The peculiarity of all of this becomes more clear when we consider why Lewis rejects transworld identity. He holds that the problem is that the identity is just mysterious, "an irreducible fact, not to be explained in terms of anything else" (p. 39) or else just has to reduce to the kind of resemblance that fits better with the counterpart relation. But there is no mystery. The Ripov in another possible world is the Ripov in the actual world, because he is a way this actual Ripov could be. The whole point, the whole point, of talking about possible worlds as 'ways things could be' is to give the underlying logical structure of what we say about the actual Ripov. We did not discover the ghost worlds like galaxies through a metaphysical telescope; we experienced the actual world and recognized that things in it cannot be properly accounted for or  placed in a coherent narrative unless we recognize that the actual things themselves could be otherwise -- that this Ripov who doesn't bribe the judge could have. If you think of possible worlds as worlds at all, they have to be treated as the actual world itself, considered in a very selective way. These tables and chairs might have been different; this Ripov might have been different. Ripov has transworld identity because Ripovs in other possible worlds are just descriptions of the possibilities of Ripov.

Of course, as I've noted before, nothing about the actual formal system requires that we think of possible worlds as worlds at all; they are logical entities mapped to consistent sets of truth-valued logical propositions, which we can interpret in endless numbers of ways. Even interpreted as 'ways the actual world could have been', however, nothing requires that they be treated as worlds; as ways the actual world could have been, it makes more sense to treat the actual world as the world, and the possible worlds as descriptively capturing 'slices' of that very world. They aren't ghost worlds; rather, they are 'beings of reason', and we use them to describe the actual world in which we live.


David K. Lewis, Counterfactuals, Harvard UP (Cambridge, MA: 1973).

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Fortnightly Book, March 12

 Arms of the house of Piccolomini.svg

Ever since I did my little exploratory series on the reform and the Renaissance papacy, I've wanted to read some of Commentaries of Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, also known as Pope Pius II. The Commentaries themselves are a sprawling, rambling work of more than twelve volumes, but in 1959, Florence A. Gregg and Leona C. Gabel published a one-volume abridged translation as, Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope: The Commentaries of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini. I've had a copy for a while, and this is as good a time as ever to dive into it.

Gabel gives the principles for the abridgement in the Foreword:

The principle guiding the selection of passages for this abridgement was initially that the content be at first hand, the Pope writing either as observer of or as participant in the events related....A further reduction was effected by cutting or omitting certain blocks of subject matter of interest mainly to the specialist and available to him in the complete edition. The author's fondness of repetition and for lengthy speeches offered still another possibility for abbreviation, though care has been taken to preserve characteristic examples. (p. 11)

The whole Commentaries primarily covers the years 1458-1463, but in fact cover a lot going back to 1405 and even farther in history, since the author often goes back and reflects on his life and the historical course up to it, but the abridgement for practical purposes can be said to cover the period of the Renaissance from the Council of Basle up to Pius II's death, at which point he is preparing to lead personally a crusade against the Turks because he has been unable to get the major leaders of Christian Europe to recognize that the Ottomans are reaching the point of being able to invade Europe itself.

The edition I have is a nice reprinting in 1988 by The Folio Society; it's a cream-color book with a red titling leather on the spine. The covers are in what's often known as 'elephant hide', a parchment-like treated paper that is very durable, and it is stamped with the outline of the coat of arms of the House of Piccolomini. The text itself is in Centaur typeface on what's known as antique wove paper. The book also has a set of plates of paintings commemorating various things in the Pope's life.


Pius II, Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope, Gregg, tr., Gabel, ed., The Folio Society (London: 1988).