It Wasn’t Intentional

Intentionality is an interesting thing. Me personally, I find it fascinating how you just can’t get rid of it. If you try and eliminate it or reduce it, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Now to me, this makes quite a bit of sense since, if you read my blog many moons ago, I spent a little bit of time trying to develop a linguistic and semantic conception of reality (here, for example) which I still pretty much hold to. You could probably get away with calling my view tagmemics, or at least noting that it’s in the same neighbourhood.

When it comes to intentionality, meaning, etc, I generally take a semiotic view (not that I’m any great expert in semiotics). The classic Stoic example is a flushed face, which is a sign for a fever. The flush means fever. But this isn’t the whole story – how does a flush, which at bottom is just a biological phenomenon, mean anything? Well, it depends on how we define ‘mean’. If we see enough flushes in close connection with enough fevers, we start to realize, hey, there’s some connection here. If there is a flush, then he has a fever. Or think of smoke and fire. Smoke doesn’t ‘mean’ fire – smoke is just a collection of particles floating around. The meaning comes from us – when we see enough columns of smoke coming from enough fires, we can confidently say, ‘smoke means fire’. These are what John Searle would call ‘derived’ intentionality – the intentionality is derived from us. It’s not an intrinsic feature of smoke, or flushes. Smoke isn’t ‘about’ fire and flushes aren’t ‘about’ fevers.

Most things in the world have derived intentionality. Words on paper don’t have intrinsic intentionality or meaning – there’s no intrinsic connection between c-a-t and the furry four-legged creature that meows at at my bedside 3AM to be let out. It could just as well be m-a-t, if enough folks went with that.

As-if intentionality is another of Searle’s classification – when we say, ‘boy, that computer just doesn’t want to run that program’, that’s as-if intentionality. The computer doesn’t want or not want to do anything – it has no desires or goals or any kind of conscious life. Another classic example is that of a river – the river appears to want to flow downstream, but the river has no conscious intention or desire to flow. It’s just a river.

The last of Searle’s three types of intentionality is ‘intrinsic’ – intentionality intrinsic to a thing. This is generally associated with the mind – Brentano called intentionality ‘the mark of the mental’. This refers to the ability of the mind to direct itself in thought towards things – to have thoughts ‘about’ things. There are lots of different ways of thinking about intentionality – naturalist, reductionist, eliminativist (of these, eliminativism is perhaps the least coherent) – but for my money, I’m not convinced by any of them for the rather simple fact that no matter what’s done to eliminate it, it always seems to be a very necessary part of how it’s eliminated. Other accounts of intentionality, say the conceptual role theory, do a decent enough job explaining a possible mechanism of intentionality but don’t really offer any actual account of how there is such a thing in the first place.

A basic theme in intentionality is that if it’s physical, it has no fixed meaning:

‘One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation of its physical constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that mind represents it as having.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God’, p. 195-196)

Meaning, being the mark of the mental, is also the gift of the mental. I’ve expounded (the two links above) a conception of reality in which it’s semantic in nature – call it a field of semantics, out of which meaning can be made (this is different from, say a more general account of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ in the universe that one often hears about). We exist as meaning-making agents because we exist in a reality that is a semantic field.

Atonement Notes

The first thing to note in any study of the atonement in the early church is that there was no one monolithic view of the atonement. There are large themes that emerge, and some of these themes clearly dominant more than others and some even serve as controlling structures under and through which other aspects of the atonement are brought forward. The controlling element of some of the larger themes is important, because no aspect of the atonement can really be a stand-alone kind of thing, or played off of other themes – the controlling structures are what allow everything to come together in a coherent way. Briefly, then, some of the dominant notes of the atonement are:

Christus Victor – for my part, this is the most important element, for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the overall controlling structure and framework for the atonement as a whole. The victory of Christ over death and the powers in his death and resurrection is a very clearly found in both the Biblical and patristic witness – through his victory he sets free those who are held captive by death. Athanasius was the most important expounder of this view in the early church.

Healing – this theme highlights the ‘what happened to humanity’ part of the atonement. By Christ’s person, life, and work, the corruption and death in humanity is healed (this is tied closely to the hypostatic union, which I won’t go into here). There is a real, objective, ontological change wrought by God in the deepest part of humanity, where the sickness and corruption are healed by Christ’s overthrowing of death and corruption. Athanasius and Gregory Nazanien developed this theme greatly.

Recapitulation – developed in the early church primarily by Irenaeus, the motif of recapitulation has to do with the ‘re-creation’ of humanity, in which the history of humanity in Adam is ‘summed up’ and gone over again, succeeding where Adam failed (it may not be too far off the mark to think of Anselm as elaborating on this theme), and in virtue of that undoing the primal Fall. Irenaeus is most associated with this viewpoint.

Substitution – Christ died in our place being the key thing here. This is also seen in the early church very clearly very early on, though the theme was far from modern formulations of penal substitution. Christ died in our place, as a ransom and a sacrifice – this is a motif that is quite clear in the Biblical and patristic witness and may have the clearest Old Testament parallels – one can hardly open the Old Testament without finding stories of sacrifices.

The extent to which these themes are interwoven should be somewhat easy to see – Christ recapitulates Adam and humanity and succeeds where Adam had failed in his life, and by doing so effects a real healing of human nature. In his death and resurrection he defeats death, and having healed human nature of its sickness of death, opens salvation to all.

What I’m thinking of doing next is working a bit more on how these themes overlap and provide controlling structures for how we think of the atonement.

Question on James Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’

A big point in James K.A. Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’ was the active role that the perceiving agent played in the constitution of the world – in Smith’s thought, man is far from being a mere ‘thinking substance’ or ‘rational animal’ at the mercy of sensory impressions and characterized primarily by ‘knowing’. Smith, however, later goes on to expound the nature and formative powers of social media in a way that really seems to undo the work he did by presenting man as an active animal. We seem to be entirely at the mercy of the formative powers of social media (Facebook, etc).

Smith argues for this by basically saying that products of human culture like Facebook encourage a certain way of acting by virtue of its built-in purpose (Smith doesn’t see things as merely neutral tools like many people would argue). There is a kind of narrative to Facebook, and to continually use Facebook (or any social media) is to be slowly shaped by that narrative. But I guess my question why are we completely passive in this process, when in every other aspect, we aren’t? Smith argues against conceptions of humanity that have us as passive receivers of sensory data – why have us as purely passive recipients of the formative powers of social media?

Brief Notes on the Atonement in the Fathers

The controlling themes that surface in the atonement are basically substitution, Christus Victor, and healing – and these themes are often intertwined with each other. Healing and substitution go together (and you could probably fit these in under recapitulation) and both of those themes are kind of subsumed under Christus victor, which I personally take to be the dominant controlling theme, through and under which the other themes are developed. Under the theme of CV, the themes of substitution and healing cohere into one unified whole.

Thought Notes

Busy week, oi. But I read/am reading a great little article on Aquinas’ account of mental representation – focusing on intentionality and the knower/thing known identity, which I’m going to read a bit more about. His account of how the intellect is informed by the form of the object known is pretty interesting as well – I personally find Aquinas’ epistemology pretty solid.

I’ve also read a good article on the concept of substitution/penal substitution in the early church fathers (here, which I’ll probably write a longer post on. Suffice it to say that attempts to locate a strictly penal view of the atonement in the early fathers fails pretty miserably – and as the article shows, by confusing substitution located in and under the larger themes of healing and Christus victor with penal substitution. I suspect I’ll be drawing on Irenaeus pretty heavily.

I’ve also thought a little bit about just war (those who argue that the Ten Commandments forbid war are simply wrong) and ethics more generally – using Tolkien as a bit of spring-board. I’m not a big fan of people mining Tolkien for ‘deep’ thoughts, but I think in the case of war it’s justified. A lot can be gleaned from his writings – not so much specific instances but moreso by taking his stories as wholes. Ethically, positively I fall firmly in the Bonhoeffer camp, negatively in the Nietzsche camp, as regards rationalistic modes of ethics.

Along with ethics I’ve had a few fleeting thoughts on freedom of the will – or rather, how misguided most contemporary discussions of free will are. Honestly, they can be pretty terrible (Sam Harris comes to mind). For my part, I’m convinced by Maximos the Confessor with regard to the will, as expounded by David Bentley Hart:

‘Of course, we are inclined (especially today) to think of freedom wholly in terms of arbitrary or pathetic volition, a potency made actual every time one chooses a particular course of action out from a variety of other possibilities. And obviously, for finite intellects, this is the bare minimum that liberty must assume; but it is also, just as obviously, a form of subordination and confinement. All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it before it has even chosen. Moreover  these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.

A higher understanding of human nature, however, is inseparable from a definition of human nature. To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness.’ (‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ p. 70-71)


Gilson on Existence and Essence

‘Why, Saint Thomas asks, do we say that Qui est is the most proper name among all those that can given to God? And his answer is because it signifies “to be”: ipsum esse. But what is it to be? In answering this most difficult of all metaphysical questions, we must carefully distinguish between two words which are both different and yet intimately related: ens, or “being”, and esse, or “to be”. To the question: What is being? the correct answer is: Being is that which is, or exists. If, for instance, we ask this same question with regard to God, the correct answer would be: The being of God is an infinite and boundless ocean of substance. But essse, or “to be”, is something else and  much harder to grasp because it lies more deeply hidden in the metaphysical structure of reality. The word “being”, as a noun, designates some substance; the word “to be” – or esse – is a verb, because it designates an act. To understand this is also to reach, beyond the level of essence, the deeper level of existence. For it is quite true to say that all which is a substance must of necessity also both have an essence and an existence. In point of fact, such is the natural order followed by our rational knowledge: we first concieve certain beings, then we define their essences, and last we affirm their existence by means of a judgment. But the metaphysical order of reality is just the reverse of the order of human knowledge: what first comes into it as a certain act of existing which, because it is this particular act of existing, circumscribes at once a certain essence and causes a certain substance to come into being. In this deeper sense, “to be” is the primitive and fundamental act by virtue of which a certain being actually is, or exists. In Saint Thomas’ own words: dictur esse ipse actus essentiae – “to be” is the very act whereby an essence is.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘God and Philosophy’, p. 63-64)