Saturday, January 02, 2016

Assertion and reference

Lydia McGrew appears to suggest here that when the Quran says something like ‘Noah built an ark’, it is not saying just that the referent of ‘Noah’ built an Ark, but also that the referent of ‘Noah’ here is the same as the referent of ‘Noah’ in the Bible. Is the identity of reference asserted, as she seems to suggest, or is it required in order that to understand what the sentence says? I claim that it is a prerequisite, rather than an assertion, for the following reasons.

1. Generally it’s problematic to say that sentences contain assertions about what their component words mean. Does ‘Noah built an ark’ contain the assertion that ‘ark’ means a boat or ship? But then you have the problem of the sentence being false. Is it false because Noah didn’t built a boat or ship, or because he did, but ‘ark’ means something else, like ‘Wednesday’ or ‘fries with ketchup’.

2. What do we do about the passages in the Quran which quote the Bible? The English translation of Exodus 4 reads ‘Moses threw it [his staff] on the ground and it became a snake’. The version in the Quran (20:20) reads ‘Moses threw it down, and thereupon it turned into a slithering serpent’. Is the reference of ‘Moses’ different in the Quran from that in the Bible? If so, how can we accurately quote any passage from the Bible, given that the passage as we quote it may be about different individuals?

3. We use Biblical names in this kind of discussion all the time. E.g. you use the name ‘Abraham’. Are you making the claim that your referent of ‘Abraham’ is identical to the referent of that name as used in the Bible? How do I verify or test that claim? Is it down to same mental intention of yours? But I am not a clairvoyant.

4. How could you confirm your claim? For example, you could say ‘When I use the name ‘Abraham’, my intended referent is identical with the referent of the name as it occurs in the Bible’. But in order to do this you had to use the definite description ‘the referent of the name as it occurs in the Bible’. Are you now making yet another claim that the referent of this definite description is also identical with the referent in the Bible?? And doesn’t this lead to an infinite regress? The problem is that any claim that we are referring to N must itself refer to N.

Bill Vallicella makes a somewhat related claim here, which I will look at tomorrow.

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