Dennis M. writes,
On Ockham and supposita: A little perplexity at the end, when you write that “[w]hat is curious here is how very specific theological doctrines are allowed to drive the general ontology.” One man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, I suppose, but if Ockham is trying to maintain theological orthodoxy it doesn’t seem too strange to me. Presumably his Christian faith came first, and wasn’t based on any complicated metaphysical arguments. Isn’t it reasonable for him to hold the faith unless it just can’t be done, no way and no how, rather than revise it for the sake of a more straightforward ontology – especially if he is concerned with the risk to his salvation? Maybe I’m misunderstanding something simple here.
I agree that Ockham's Christian faith came first. But I don't agree that the content of his faith wasn't based on any complicated metaphysical arguments. The theological dogmas had to be hammered out in the councils in the teeth of various competing teachings, later to be branded 'heretical,' and that hammering-out involved metaphysical reasoning using principles and distinctions and logical operations not to be found in the Scripture. To state the obvious, the church fathers made use of Greek philosophical conceptuality.
For example, if the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, what exactly does that mean? That God took on a human body? That is, roughly, the Appolinarian heresy. Does it mean that there are two persons in Christ, the Word and the person of the man Jesus? That, roughly, is the Nestorian heresy. If Jesus died on the cross, did a real man die on the cross, or merely a phantom body as the Docetists maintained? Did God the Father suffer on the cross as the Patripassians held? And so on.
Therefore, if Ockham's faith was, or was in part, faith that certain dogmatic propositions are true, then his faith was based on "complicated metaphysical arguments." Of course, there is much more to a living religious faith than giving one's intellectual assent to theological propositions. And one can and should question just how important doctrine is to a vital religious faith.
The problem I am trying to command a clear view of can be approached via the following aporetic tetrad:
a. A person is a (primary) substance of a rational nature. (Boethian
b. There is only one person in Christ, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. (Rejection of the heresy of Nestorius, according to which in Christ there are two persons in two natures rather than one person in two natures.)
c. The individual(ized) human nature of Christ is a primary substance of a rational
d. Every (primary) substance is its own supposit, which implies that every
substance of a rational nature has its own personhood.
Now let's say you have been schooled in Aristotle's metaphysics and are also an orthodox Christian. So you are inclined to accept all four propositions. But they cannot all be true. So one of them must be rejected. Suppose you reject (d). You are then allowing your theological convictions to influence your ontology, your metaphysica generalis.
Is this kosher? Well, if there are non-theological cases in which a distinction between substance and suppositum is warranted, then clearly yes. But if there aren't, then the rejection of (d) and the attendant distinction between substances and supposita smacks of being ad hoc. You are in a logical bind and you extricate yourself by making a distinction that caters to this very bind.
The distinction is made to accommodate a piece of theology, namely, the orthodox Incarnation doctrine.
And so the distinction between primary substance and supposit is open to the charge of being ad hoc. The Latin phrase means 'to this' and suggests that the distinction has no independent support and is a mere invention pulled out of thin air to render coherent an otherwise incoherent, or not obviously
coherent, theological doctrine.
Again, I ask: Is this (philosophically) kosher?
If our question as philosophers of religion is whether the Incarnation doctrine is rationally acceptable, then it is hard to see how it can shown to be such by the use of a distinction which has no independent support, a distinction which is crafted for the precise purpose of making the doctrine in question rationally acceptable. To rebut this objection from ad hocness, someone will have to explain to me that and how the primary substance-supposit distinction has independent warrant. Is there some clear non-theological case in which the distinction surfaces?
If I ask whether the Incarnation doctrine is rationally acceptable, and you make an ad hoc distinction that removes a putative contradiction, this simply pushes the question back a step: is your distinction rationally acceptable? Arguably, it is not if it is purely ad hoc.
But I admit that the objection from ad-hocness or ad-hocceity is not decisive. Dennis might say to me, "Look, the theological dogma has the force of divine revelation because it was elaborated by fathers of the church under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. So what more support could you ask for?"
At this point we have a stand-off. If the Incarnation doctrine in its specific Chalcedonian formulation is divinely revealed, then of course it is true, whether or not we mere mortals can understand how it is true. But note also that if the doctrine is divinely revealed, then there is no need to defend it by making fancy distinctions. The main point, however, is that anyone who worries about the rational acceptability of the orthodox Incarnation doctrine will also worry about how any group of men can legitimately claim to be guided by the Holy Ghost. How could anyone know such a thing? Any person or group can claim to be under divine inspiration. But how validate the claim?
This looks to be another version of the Athens versus Jerusalem stand-off. The religionist can say to the philosopher: "We have our truth and it is from God, and we are under no obligation to prove its 'acceptability' to your puny 'reason.' To which the philosopher might respond, "You are asking us to abandon our very way of life, the life of inquiry and rational autonomy, and for what? For acquiescence in sheer dogmatism, dogmatism contradicted by other dogmatisms that you conveniently ignore."
Dennis also brings up the soteriological angle. Is one's salvation at risk if one questions or rejects a particular doctrinal formulation of the Incarnation? Is it reasonable to think that salvation hinges on the acceptance of the Chalcedonian definition? Is it reasonable to think that Nestorius is in hell for having espoused a doctrine that was rejected as heretical? Not by my lights. By my lights to believe such a thing is border-line crazy. How could a good God condemn to hell a man who, sincerely, prayerfully, and by his best intellectual lights, in good faith and in good conscience, arrived at a view that the group that got power labelled heretical or heterodox?