Monday, January 31, 2005

A Lockean Theory of Trinity and Incarnation

Joseph Jedwab, D. Phil. candidate at Oriel College, Oxford, writes:

As promised, here is a Lockean theory of the Trinity and Incarnation:

Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 2, Chapter 27, has quite a bit to say about substances and persons. By ‘a substance’, he means a fundamental entity and he says that, in this sense, there are three kinds of substance: God [infinite spirit], finite intelligences [finite spirits], and bodies [atoms]. By ‘a person’, he means ‘a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself the same thinking thing in different times and places’ (section 9). He gives an account of the unity of the mental items of a person at a time in terms of introspection and gives an account of the unity of the mental items of a person at different times in terms of memory. He says that just as atoms constitute an organism so long as their joint activity constitutes a life, so a spirit constitutes a person so long as its activity constitutes a consciousness. Same life; same organism. Same consciousness; same person. But he also thinks that just as the same atoms can compose different organisms at different times and different atoms can compose the same organism at different times, so the same spirit can constitute different persons at different times and different spirits can constitute the same person at different times. But there is no reason why, if so, the same spirit cannot constitute more than one person at the same time and more than one spirit cannot constitute the same person at the same time.

Assume this could be. So Locke believes that there are spirits who have consciousnesses and that spirits who have consciousnesses constitute persons. But the spirit and the person are distinct because they have different persistence conditions: the identity of persons consists in the identity of consciousness but the identity of spirits does not so consist. Now here is a theory of the Trinity and the Incarnation as a package deal. Consider it a late Christmas present.

Here is the Trinity. There is one divine spirit who has three divine consciousnesses and so the divine spirit constitutes three divine persons. God is the spirit who has three divine consciousnesses. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the divine persons that God constitutes. In this case, God is not a person, for he lacks the persistence conditions of a person. No divine person is identical to God, but there is a natural sense in which each divine person is God because every divine person is constituted by God. We can even add that the Father essentially causes the Son to exist and the Son essentially causes the Holy Spirit to exist. So we have the processions.

Here is the Incarnation. Locke thinks that a human being is an organism that exists so long as the activity of its constituent atoms constitute a life. Sometimes he says that a human being is a composite of atoms. Other times he says that a human being is a composite of atoms and a finite spirit. Let’s go with this last for the sake of exposition. He also thinks that human persons are composites of atoms and a finite spirit. But as the careful reader may have noticed, he thinks human beings and human persons are different because their persistence conditions are different. Finally, he thinks it probable that thinking substances are immaterial simples but sees no reason why God could not superadd thought to a material being.

Now back to the Incarnation. It comes to be the case that the divine spirit and a human thinking substance (or human being) constitute the Son. The divine spirit is one nature and the human thinking substance (or human being) is another nature. Together they constitute one divine person who is also human. We can even add, if we want, that human beings are material beings to whom God superadds thought and so have the Incarnation with human beings as material. So what do you think about that?

My problem is not so much with the application as with the metaphysical account of persons here. Of course, we need not follow Locke in the details of what counts as a consciousness. My principal difficulty is that I think to distinguish persons and thinking substances here is double counting. There are too many thinkers here. If the person is a thinker and the thinking substance is a thinker, then the way I individuate events and states, there are too many thoughts here. I also see no reason why the thinking substance should not qualify as a person. So there are too many persons here. Finally, there is an epistemic problem. I think I am a person and so the thinking substance also thinks it is a person. I get things right; it gets things wrong. But then how do I know I am the person who gets this right and not the substance who gets this wrong? We have all the same reasons for our beliefs. I am aware that more could be said in reply here. But I also think there is more to be said in reply to the replies. Let that be an end to it for the nonce.