Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Gospel truth

In my last post, I mentioned two fundamental differences between the account of fiction I have defended here, and the account given by Peter van Inwagen in "Creatures of fiction". The first is that, according to me, sentences in fiction have a truth value. They are typically false (although works of fiction may contain many true statements, such as that Napoleon was short, that Paris is a city in France, that Baker street is in London etc). The second is that fictional names refer. Van Inwagen, by contrast, holds that (i) sentences in fiction typically assert nothing at at all and (ii) fictional names do not refer.

Taking the first point first. Van Inwagen's position is essentially the neo-Fregean view of assertion, namely that the same thought or proposition may occur now asserted, now unasserted, that I have criticised in many places, particularly here, arguing that assertion is part of the semantics of a sentence, and that every complete sentence (i.e. one that is not a subordinate or noun clause) can be analysed into a sign for the content of the sentence - that which it states or expresses, usually signified by a 'that' clause, and a sign for assertion or denial.  Thus "Snow is white" = "It is the case / that snow is white".  If this is correct, then even fictional sentences contain an assertoric component, and hence are capable of truth or falsity, independent of what the narrator means or intends when he or she utters them.  This is exactly what Van Inwagen denies, and it is, of course, why he calls sentences vehicles of assertion. 

The same view is defended by Alvin Plantinga (The Nature of Necessity, Oxford, 1974, Ch. VIII, pp. 153-163 especially), who cites a famous passage by the English poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586).
Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth. He citeth not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in troth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be. And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not; without we will say that Nathan lied in his speech, before alleged, to David; which, as a wicked man durst scarce say, so think I none so simple would say that Aesop lied in the tales of his beasts; for who thinketh that Aesop wrote it for actually true, were well worthy to have his name chronicled among the beasts he writeth of.
This is not right. For it is not true, as Sidney implies, that there is absolutely no gap between saying something false, and lying. There are at least two things in between. The dictionary definition of ‘to lie’ is ‘to utter something that is false with the intention to deceive’. Thus (1) in the case of stories, the narrator utters something he knows to be false, but with no intention to deceive. There is a compact between the narrator and his audience. The audience knows that these are falsehoods, the narrator knows that they know this, and both sides agree the same. This does not change the fact that the things said are (typically) falsehoods. And (2) in many cases a person uttering falsehoods does not know they are false, but rather believes sincerely in their truth, and so does not intend to deceive either. For example, a story about some miracle that (we will assume) cannot be true, but which the teller genuinely and sincerely and believes, and which, to paraphrase Sidney “he telleth for true”.

Someone who is not a Biblical fundamentalist must deal with the possibility that some or all of the events recounted in the Gospel are not literally true. If so, then according to Inwagen’s neo-Fregean view of assertion, one who recounts the Gospels is not asserting anything, and is not saying anything true or false. Clearly not: the fundamentalist, for one, will strenuously defend the literal truth of everything that is stated there. The ‘truth’ of the Resurrection is fundamental to Christian belief, and is even something a Christian has to publicly state they believe in.

Nor can Van Inwagen exclude such texts from his account. For his account is designed to explain the truth and falsity of statements of textual criticism, in which Biblical criticism must be included. For example, in “Discipleship and minor characters in mark's gospel” Joel Williams writes.
The main character groups in Mark's Gospel are the disciples, the opponents of Jesus, and the crowd. In addition to these groups, a number of individual characters are included in Mark's narrative. Some of them, such as Andrew or Peter, are disciples, while others, such as the high priest or Pilate, oppose Jesus. Also a number of minor characters function neither as Jesus' disciples nor as His opponents.
The statements are clearly true, and they include the sort of quantification (“some of them … others…”) that Inwagen’s account is designed to explain. But they are inconsistent with one of his key assumptions, which is that ‘textual criticism’ statements are vehicles of assertion, whereas the sentences in the texts they are criticising are not.

I will discuss the second point about 'reference' later.

Labels: , ,

11 Comments:

Blogger David Brightly said...

I find I'm happy to go with PVI in saying that the sentences of fiction are not attempting to refer or describe. It's true that such sentences have the form of assertions. But if assertion can be cancelled by an operator such as 'that' we can also say that assertion can be cancelled by cues from an outer context. We know that the sentences come from a novel, say, or that we are watching a scene from a film contrived for our entertainment. We could view the entire content of a story as ideas neither asserted or denied, but merely put forward for our consideration---that someone fled his city, that he met a queen, that he left her and sailed away, and so on. We may be faced with trying to decide if a text is an attempt at history or fiction, but if we already know it to be fiction, I fail to see the motivation for attempts to assign truth values to its sentences, especially as it seems we must depart from classical logic to achieve this. Are we augmenting sentences we know to be true with sentences from the fiction in an attempt to reveal inconsistencies? Are we trying to deduce some new truth? Surely not. I've probably missed some important point, but why, in short, are we bothering?

6:24 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

Ah fixed it. I'll reply later today (street party).

11:44 am  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Enjoy the cakes and ale!

11:56 am  
Blogger David Brightly said...

A further question: In what way are the statements of the Joel Williams excerpt inconsistent with the PVI assumption that sentences of fiction do not assert? I don't follow you here.

3:48 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Your latest at BV's makes much sense, though I daresay BV will cling to 'one cannot refer to what does not exist' and not engage with you. This is rather ironic. Relative to the discussion earlier this year on 'intentional objects' you and BV would seem to have switched roles!

What you are now calling reference is not quite our usual understanding. It appears to be something internal to language itself rather than a relation between language and the world. But this is good because it decouples the semantics of proper names from the usual problems about empty reference and the truth of sentences. I take you to be saying that the meaning of a sentence involving a proper name is quite independent of whether the name 'refers' in the usual sense. And its truth is a further issue still.

I think I understand what you mean by 'names in fiction are merely labels', but though we know what it means to pin a label on a physical object it's a lot harder to say what this means in the case of the nonexistent, like a hobbit. But it doesn't just apply to names in fiction does it? The implication is that all proper names work this way, including the everyday ones that we happily agree refer (in the usual sense) to physical objects. This is beginning to look like a radically new theory of reference, one which I find very congenial. But there are two (at least!) big questions: (a) how does this 'labelling' work? and (b) how does our sense that names refer to the world come about?

8:35 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Relative to the discussion earlier this year on 'intentional objects' you and BV would seem to have switched roles!

I thought that would amuse you.

>>What you are now calling reference is not quite our usual understanding. It appears to be something internal to language itself rather than a relation between language and the world.

We engaged with this a while back and I agreed I would use the term 'relative reference' for the word-word relation and 'direct reference' for the presumed word-world relation (which as I argue does not exist, and is a fiction of the philosophers - all reference is story-relative, if I am correct). However Bill does not recognise the term 'relative reference'.

>>I take you to be saying that the meaning of a sentence involving a proper name is quite independent of whether the name 'refers' in the usual sense. And its truth is a further issue still.

Yes.

>>I think I understand what you mean by 'names in fiction are merely labels', but though we know what it means to pin a label on a physical object it's a lot harder to say what this means in the case of the nonexistent, like a hobbit. But it doesn't just apply to names in fiction does it? The implication is that all proper names work this way, including the everyday ones that we happily agree refer (in the usual sense) to physical objects. This is beginning to look like a radically new theory of reference, one which I find very congenial. But there are two (at least!) big questions: (a) how does this 'labelling' work? and (b) how does our sense that names refer to the world come about?

I depends what you mean by 'label'. I don't believe in non-existent objects (my talk of it it Bill's was simply to avoid the usual communication breakdown). Rather, 'refers to' is a logically intransitive verb. 'The name "Bilbo" refers to a hobbit' is consistent with 'nothing is a hobbit', where the term 'nothing' ranges over absolutely everything (not just 'ordinary things', although as it happens all things are ordinary, if Ockhamism is correct).

9:10 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

On the points you raised earlier, when I had the comments box problem (I am having deep problems with the security settings on this computer, where I got unwanted warning boxes popping up all over the place).

1. You suggested that my account is a departure from classical logic. What did you mean? My only issue with 'classical logic' is that it fails to represent the logic of ordinary language. In at least two ways. First, a sentence of the form R(a,b) in ordinary language does not always imply Ex R(a,x), where 'R' is logically intransitive. This does not meant there are 'nonexistent objects', as we have discussed. Second, a sentence of the form Fa may have two causes of falsity, (i) where a exists but is not F, (ii) where a does not exist. The second condition contrasts with classical logic, which accepts only the first. 'Negative free logic' does accept the second condition, and up to this point I agree with Sainsbury. However, I do not agree with his interpretation of 'Pegasus is not a centaur'. According to Sainsbury, this is true, and does not imply that something is not a centaur. By contrast, I hold that it is false, and that if true it would imply that something is not a centaur. That is, unlike Sainsbury, I hold that 'Pegasus is a centaur' and 'Pegasus is not a centaur' are both false. This does not mean I reject Excluded Middle. I do accept it, but I do not regard 'Pegasus is not a centaur' as the true negation of 'Pegasus is a centaur'.

2. On your question about Joel Williams, I should have brought this out more clearly. I think (though not sure) that Van Inwagen subscribes to 'Russell's principle': we cannot make a (singular) judgment about something unless we know which object the proposition is about. The principle includes the implicit (and in my view false) assumption that we cannot know which object is F, for any F, unless such an object exists. Since PVI holds that fictional narratives are not strictly 'about' anything, i.e. the sentence 'Mrs Gamp is fat', as it occurs in the novel, is not 'about' anyone, it follows that the sentence cannot express a proposition. The same is true of any apparently historical narrative whose singular subjects are empty. If the Jesus Myth is true, then none of the characters in the Gospels exist. If Russell's priniciple is also true, it follows that we cannot make any judgments, or express any genuine proposition about these characters, qua characters in the narrative. That seems plainly false.

PVI also holds the apparently inconsistent view that when we talk about these characters in 'textual criticism', then we are talking and making judgments about them, qua subjects of textual criticism. He defends it very carefully, but in the end it seems absurd. In fact, taking his view as a whole, he holds that tables chairs and houses and ships do not exist, but that fictional characters do.

9:10 am  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Your criticism of PVI relies on the symmetry between fictional texts and, say, historical texts. One aspect in which they differ is that fictions tend not to come with keys which map the characters of the text onto persons, whereas historical texts do, or ideally do. This, I think, is where Russell's principle comes in. We can't judge the truth of sentences without the key. Faced with a text lacking a key (which might be fact or fiction) our recourse is to try to reconstruct one. We adjoin the sentences of the text to sentences expressing known facts plus sentences expressing the key. If we can show that the resulting set of sentences is inconsistent for every possible key we judge the text a fiction. If we can't do this we are rather left in limbo. There are analogous processes whereby we try to falsify scientific hypotheses and formulate non-existence proofs in maths.

Regarding NFL, I confess I struggle. Having been brought up to believe that it's a cardinal sin to introduce a name without first proving the existence of its intended referent I can't quite grasp what it is for a simple proposition to carry an existence assertion hidden inside it. How would a proof go in NFL of the non-existence of a rational square root of two? And then there's narrow and wide scope for negation. I thought I knew what 'not' meant! Evidently not. I will have another try at the SEP article.

Too long---didn't read? On the contrary, Too short---want more :-)

8:12 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Your criticism of PVI relies on the symmetry between fictional texts and, say, historical texts. One aspect in which they differ is that fictions tend not to come with keys which map the characters of the text onto persons, whereas historical texts do, or ideally do. This, I think, is where Russell's principle comes in. We can't judge the truth of sentences without the key. Faced with a text lacking a key (which might be fact or fiction) our recourse is to try to reconstruct one.

What is a key? The only significant difference between fiction and history, is that fiction comes in a nice package, usually just one book. If more than one book, then it’s nearly always by the same author. So, Dumas writes a series of books (at least 4) which refer to four musketeers. Because of the context, we know it’s the ‘same’ musketeers. The referent of ‘D’Artagnan’ is the same, for example. Not always. The book by Nicholas Meyer is not by Conan Doyle, but nonetheless is about Sherlock Holmes.

With history, the package is less neat. Many many different authors, but the analogy with the book by Meyer nonetheless holds. There must be hundreds of thousands of books about the New Testament. For all that, we can’t be sure that it is not some fiction (as per the Christ Myth theory).

>>We adjoin the sentences of the text to sentences expressing known facts plus sentences expressing the key. If we can show that the resulting set of sentences is inconsistent for every possible key we judge the text a fiction. If we can't do this we are rather left in limbo. There are analogous processes whereby we try to falsify scientific hypotheses and formulate non-existence proofs in maths.

Note I am not denying another important difference, namely that history is true, and fiction is false. But we need to disentangle epistemological questions from semantic ones. My point is that semantic analysis is not enough. You cannot tell the (existential) differences between history and fiction by analysing the meanings of proper names. You miss another technique of telling history from fiction, by the way, which is that in most cases the author of fiction tells you it is a fiction.

On the Christ Myth theory there are various arguments on both sides. Supporters of the theory point to the lack of references to Christ during the first century – the so-called ‘argument from silence’. Objections to this include the argument that ‘argument from silence’ is not logically valid, and that even as a probable argument it is rather weak. Why would you expect other, non-Christian sources to talk about Jesus? Counter-objections are that if Jesus was really the Son of God, then God would have publicised this event more widely.

10:40 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Regarding NFL, I confess I struggle. Having been brought up to believe that it's a cardinal sin to introduce a name without first proving the existence of its intended referent I can't quite grasp what it is for a simple proposition to carry an existence assertion hidden inside it. How would a proof go in NFL of the non-existence of a rational square root of two?

Your objection is perfectly valid for mathematical logic. Is it valid for ordinary language, which is what we are worried about here? On what it is for a simple proposition to carry an existence assertion hidden inside it, well it must carry that assertion if its falsity has two possible causes. I.e. if there are two possible causes of ‘Socrates is running’, namely (i) Socrates exists but is not running or (ii) Socrates does not exist, then I say that ‘Socrates is running’ asserts existence. If you don’t like the terminology, then ignore the bit about ‘assertion’ and read my claim as being that the falsity has two causes of truth.

Here is another argument. If I say ‘Some man is running’ everyone agrees I make an existence assertion (unless they are Meinongians, I suppose). If I say ‘Some man – who happens to be Socrates is running’, then having added to the original statement and subtracted nothing, I must still be making the existence assertion. Adding the proper name merely makes the assertion more specific, by adding the information that the one asserted to be running is Socrates.

On ‘proving an existent’, can’t mathematicians just define stuff into existence? What about all the stuff that Cantor said, such as here http://www.logicmuseum.com/cantor/cantorquotes.htm, including “the essence of mathematics lies entirely in its freedom” which is engraved on his tombstone.

>>And then there's narrow and wide scope for negation. I thought I knew what 'not' meant! Evidently not. I will have another try at the SEP article.

Of course you know what ‘not’ means! But you distinguish ‘some people are not bald’ from ‘it is not the case that some people are bald’, no?

10:40 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

PS, you would also distinguish

(1) Someone, who is Socrates, is not running

from

(2) It is not the case that someone, who is Socrates, is running

The second sentence is the true contradictory of 'Socrates is running', whereas (1) is a mere contrary. We tend naturally to read 'Socrates is not running' as (1), rather than (2), that is all.

10:43 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home