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Our account of proper names is an awesome account of proper names

September 25, 2009, 1:48 pm

Apparently a bunch of Muslims are gathering in DC to pray jummah in front of the Capitol Building. (I didn’t get the memo, which is a clue as to why the Islamization of America will never happen– the ummah just does not have its shit together.) Anyway, this has the usual suspects upset:

We know that our contest is with spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12), and we firmly believe that He Who is within us is greater than any other god or force (1 John 4:4), so I encourage you to fill America with prayer to the True God this coming Friday.

Whatever, it’s what they do. But what interests me is the way in which their language suggests that Muslim God is different from Christian God.

The traditional Islamic story is that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad in part as a sort of corrective to Jews and Christians, who had received revelations and warnings via earlier prophets (e.g. Moses, Abraham, Noah, and, according to Muslims, Jesus, who on this story is only a prophet not the incarnation or Son of God) yet who went astray nonetheless. Thus the Muslim view is that this is the same God, understood in a slightly different way. Compared to the Christian story, it’s Jesus demoted, and Muhammad elevated, to prophethood, no trinity, and a few other odds and ends. But the Muslim story and the Christian story agree on God creating the world, creating Adam, inspiring Noah, Moses, Abraham, Jonah, Joseph, etc., and on lots of Old Testament stories like Lot, the flood, and so on.

(Also Sharia requires me to note that the word “Allah” is a slight modification of the Arabic expression meaning “the God.”)

So do we have one God or two?

Suppose for the moment that theism is true.

Suppose further that you’ve got a definite-description view of proper names that says a name refers to a thing in virtue of some set of associated descriptions. For example “Aristotle” picks out Aristotle because Aristotle is the thing that meets descriptions like “the most talented student of Plato” and “the teacher of Alexander” and “the author of the Prior Analytics.” Obviously, a sophisticated version of this sort of view will deal with mistaken descriptions, since, after all, it could turn out that the PA was written by some other guy and mistakenly attributed to Aristotle. Because I’m too lazy to read things, I don’t know the details of such views, but in the case we’re interested in, the relevant descriptions have really significant overlap and not that much disagreement. E.g. Christian-God and Muslim-God share “creator of the world,” “Being who commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son,” and so on. Presumably some of these descriptions are true of God. Muslim and Christian accounts disagree about descriptions like “Being who inspired Muhammad” and others. It seems pretty plausible to say that, since there’s a Being in the vicinity answering to at least a lot of the descriptions associated with the two names, the names refer to the same thing.

In addition, Muslims intend to refer to the same God that Christians refer to; Muslims see themselves as having a different theory about the same thing rather than a theory about a different thing. On this view we have two considerations in favor of the same-God hypothesis: shared descriptions and referential intentions. (As opposed to the Zeus or Odin stories, which are pretty clearly about different beings.)

On the other hand suppose you like a sort of Kripke causal-chain view, where “Aristotle” refers to Aristotle because there’s the right sort of causal connection between Aristotle and our community’s use of “Aristotle.” So it’s the causal regulation doing the work. Here it seems even more plausible that “Allah” refers to the same Being that Christians are referring to when they talk about God, because it seems quite likely (again, on the assumption of theism) that God is causally connected in some relevant ways to uses of “God” and “Allah” and so on, in spite of either Christians or Muslims being wrong about the details.

Now suppose that theism is false. Here the problem is complicated by the absence of any causal chains: there can’t be the right kind of causal connections between God and our use of “God” if God doesn’t exist. What we’d need, really, is an account of identity in discourses rife with error. (Perhaps work on identity in fiction would be a helpful template here.) How to tell if “God” and “Allah” refer to the same (nonexistent) God? I suspect that the best answer is that they do, in virtue of shared intentions, shared features of the story, and so on, but it would be interesting to work out the details. Compare to myths that tell different stories about the same entities, such as Greek gods or St Nicholas: we commonly think that variations on a theme are references to the same entities, rather than stories about similar but nonidentical things.

As a philosophical tidbit, I think error theories about morality– these hold that moral discourse is systematically confused because there are no moral properties, facts, etc.– face a challenge making sense of shared meaning in cases where speakers have different moral theories. I recently went to an interesting talk by Jonas Olson on this.

Miscellany:

I realize I’ve moved with no justification whatsoever from theism to Abrahamic faiths. Worshipers of the Prime Mover, you have my apologies.

Also it strikes me that the Jewish story is also different from the Christian story, insofar as God is not tripartite, is not incarnated in Jesus, etc., so, in theory at least, the same worry should arise. Why it does not in practice is a problem left for the reader.

The other thing that amuses me about this is that the rest of the 99 Names are also more like definite descriptions. Russell would be pissed.

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