A New Problem for Divine Conceptualism?

0. Introduction

Divine Conceptualism (DC) is an idea about the ontological relationship between God and abstract objects, defended by Greg Welty, in his M.Phil thesis “An Examination of Theistic Conceptual Realism as an Alternative to Theistic Activism“(Welty (2000)), his Philosophia Christi paper “The Lord of Non-Contradiction” (Anderson and Welty (2011)), and his contributions to the book “Beyond the Control of God” edited by Paul Gould (Welty (2016)). Put simply, (DC) identifies abstract objects as something like ideas in the mind of God.

Welty sees his view as being quite close to that of Morris & Menzel‘s (1986) ‘theistic activism’ (TA), according to which:

“…all properties and relations are God’s concepts; the products, or perhaps better, the contents of a divine intellective activity.” (Morris & Menzel (1986), p. 166)

Morris & Menzel’s TA asserts that God created everything which is distinct from God, and that includes the divine concepts themselves. However, as Welty (2000) p.29 observes, TA is vulnerable to ‘bootstrapping’ objections. If God is supposed to be able to create his own properties, then he creates his own omnipotence (because omnipotence is a property); yet it seems that one would already have to have omnipotence in order to be able to create omnipotence. Even more forcefully: God already needs to possess the property of ‘being able to create properties’ in order to create properties. The idea of self-creation is therefore seemingly incoherent.

Welty’s DC can be seen as a modified version of TA; it is TA without the troublesome doctrine of self-creation. On DC:

“…abstract objects … are uncreated ideas in the divine mind; i.e. God’s thoughts.” (Welty, (2000), p. 43

Postulating abstract objects as uncreated divine ideas is designed to avoid the bootstrapping objections from above.

There are of course lots of different types of abstract objects, including propositions, properties, possible worlds, mathematical objects, etc. Here we will only look at propositions. One of the motivations for thinking that propositions in particular are divine thoughts is the argument from intentionality (seen in Anderson and Welty (2011), p 15-18). Propositions are intentional, in that they are about things. So the proposition ‘the cat is on the mat’ is about the cat having a certain relationship to the mat; the proposition is about the cat being in this relation to the mat. In a similar manner, thoughts are also about things. Consciousness is always consciousness of something or other. In Anderson and Welty (2011), it is argued that the laws of logic are propositions, which are necessarily true and really existing things. Given the intrinsic intentionality of propositions, these are argued to be thoughts. However, they cannot be thoughts had by contingently existing entities, like humans, as humans could have failed to exist, whereas laws of logic could not. Thus:

“If the laws of logic are necessarily existent thoughts, they can only be the thoughts of a necessarily existent mind.” (Anderson and Welty, (2011), p.19).

However, I want to point out an objection to this picture, which I have not seen in the literature (a nice summary of existing objections is found here). It is about the definition of the word ‘thought’. (It may be that this problem has been adequately documented in the literature somewhere that I have not seen. Maybe someone can let me know in the comments section.)

  1. Thought

It seems to have gone unnoticed that Welty in particular oscillates between DC being construed in two different and incompatible ways. It has to do with the word ‘thought’. There is no completely standardised usage of this term in the philosophy literature. And it is a term which needs careful definition in a philosophical argument because in natural language the word ‘thought’ is sometimes used to refer to the thinking and sometimes the thought-of; it is either the token of a type of mental activity called ‘thinking’, or it is the content, or object, of the thinking. For example, we may have the intuition that my thought is private, and that it is metaphysically impossible for you to have my thought (which makes thoughts similar to perceptions in this respect). But we may also have the intuition that we can ‘put our thoughts on paper’ or ‘share our thoughts’ with other people. It seems to me that this ambiguity infects Welty’s version of DC due to his not clearly and carefully defining what he means by ‘thought’ so as to disambiguate the term between thinking and thought-of. Welty (2000), for example, doesn’t actually contain a definition of a ‘thought’ anywhere in it, even though it mentions ‘thought’ 135 times in 85 pages.

According to Anderson and Welty (2011), they seem to indicate that a thought is not the content of thinking, but the token of the act of thinking. In a footnote on page 20, they say:

We could not have had your thoughts (except in the weaker sense that we could have thoughts with the same content as your thoughts, which presupposes a distinction between human thoughts and the content of those thoughts, e.g., propositions).”

The distinction that is being made here is between thoughts, which are individualised occurrences not shareable by multiple thinkers, and the contents of those thoughts, which are generalised and shareable by multiple thinkers. I can have a thought with the same content as you, even though we cannot have the same thought. In Fregean terms, a ‘thought’ (as Anderson and Welty use the term above) is an ‘apprehension’. When one thinks about the Pythagorean theorem, one is apprehending the proposition. In order to be explicit about what I mean, I will disambiguate the term ‘thought’ by referring to the token act of thinking as an ‘apprehension’, and the content of the thought as the ‘proposition’.

2. Blurred Lines

However, in Welty (2000), this distinction is repeatedly blurred. One of the main thrusts of the position defended there is that God’s thoughts function as abstract objects:

“God and I can have the same thought, ‘2+2=4’, in terms of content. But my thought doesn’t function in the same way that God’s thought does. My thought doesn’t determine or delimit anything about the actual world, or about any possible world. But God’s thought does. Thus, it plays a completely different role in the scheme of things, even though God and I have the same thought in terms of content. Thus, God’s thought uniquely functions as an abstract object, because of his role as creator of any possible world. I am not the creator of the actual world (much less, any possible world), and thus my thoughts, though they are in many cases the same thoughts as God’s, don’t function as abstract objects in any relevant sense.” (Welty, (2000), p. 51)

Welty says that God and I can have ‘the same thought in terms of content’, which blatantly smudges the sharp distinction between the apprehension and proposition. We can each apprehend the same proposition. But can I share in God’s apprehension of the proposition? It seems that the answer would have to be: no. God’s apprehension of a proposition is surely private to God, just as my apprehension of a proposition is private to me.

Then Welty ends the passage with “my thoughts, though they are in many cases the same thoughts as God’s, don’t function as abstract objects in any relevant sense”. The only sense in which my thoughts are “the same thoughts as God’s” is in terms of the propositions that I think about being the same as the ones that God thinks about. In that sense they do function as abstract objects, precisely because they are abstract objects, namely propositions! The sense in which ‘my thoughts’ don’t function as abstract objects is in terms of the token act of thinking (the apprehension). That doesn’t function as an abstract object, but then that is not something I share with God. So Welty cannot have it that there is something, x, which is both something I share with God and which doesn’t function as an abstract object. The only reason it seems like this is possible is because of a failure to distinguish clearly between thought as apprehension, and thought as propositional content.

This confusion pops up again and again. Take the argument from intentionality, found in all three Welty publications referenced in this post. Part of the motivation for DC is that propositions are (supposedly) thoughts (because they are intentional) but that they cannot be human thoughts; a non-divine conceptualism, the doctrine that abstract objects like propositions are human thoughts, cannot do the job here. The reason for thinking that they cannot be human thoughts is as follows:

“There aren’t enough human thoughts to go around…, human thoughts don’t necessarily exist, and whose thoughts will serve as the intersubjectively available and mind-independent referents of propositional attitudes (referents that are also named by that-clauses)?”

There are three reasons given against human thoughts being able to play the role of propositions: a) there aren’t enough of them, b) their existence isn’t necessary, c) they aren’t intersubjectively available.

While these considerations look somewhat compelling when trying to think of a human conceptualism without the benefit of the distinction between apprehension and proposition, it quickly loses its force when we apply the distinction. The problem is the combination of two types of properties that propositions need. One type of property is associated with divine apprehensions, and the other type of property is associated with divinely apprehended propositions. Being of sufficient plentitude to play the role of propositions (a), and having necessary existence (b), are of one type, and being ‘intersubjectively available’ (c) is of the other. As I shall show, you cannot have both of these types at the same time, without smudging the distinction between apprehensions and propositions.

Firstly, let’s consider non-divine conceptualism, where thoughts are construed as apprehensions.

There are, of course, only finitely many human apprehensions of propositions; there are only finitely many times people have apprehended propositions. Also, human apprehensions of propositions are contingently existing things, because human minds are themselves only contingently existing things. Human apprehensions are also inherently private, and thus not intersubjectively available. So apprehensions cannot be thought of as ‘doing the job’ of abstract objects for these reasons. That much is quite clear.

On the other hand, there may be infinitely many divine apprehensions, so there would be ‘enough to go round’, and perhaps they each exists necessarily. In this sense, they seem suited to play the role of propositions. However, as apprehensions, they would not be ‘intersubjectively available’. Can I actually share in God’s apprehension of a proposition? Unless I can, they cannot play the role of an abstract object.

Thus, when considering apprehensions, although non-divine conceptualism is not suited to play the job, neither is divine conceptualism. The problem is just that apprehensions are private. So let’s compare non-divine and divine conceptualism, where we construe ‘thought’ as the contents of thoughts.

Right away it is obvious that there is no reason to think that the content of human apprehensions are limited in the same way as their apprehensions were. The contents of human apprehensions just are propositions, so of course they can play the role of propositions!

Equally, if divine thoughts are construed as divinely apprehended propositions, then there will be enough to go round, they will exist necessarily, and they will be intersubjectively available. But in both cases, this is just because propositions themselves are sufficiently plentiful, necessary and intersubjective to play the role of propositions. Obviously, propositions can play the role of propositions. Being apprehended by God, rather than humans, is not what bestows the required properties on them.

3. Begging the question?

But perhaps I have begged the question somehow. Maybe the defender of DC can stipulate that, although my apprehensions are private, God’s apprehensions are somehow intersubjectively available. Call this theory ‘divine accessibility’ (DA). So on DA, propositions are divine apprehensions (which are plentiful, and necessary existing) and crucially also intersubjectively available to humans; they can be the content of humans’ apprehensions.

So, let’s say that I am thinking about the Pythagorean theorem. Let’s say that my apprehension is A. According to DA, the content of my apprehension, what A is about, is a divinely accessible apprehension, D. But the question is, what is the content of the divine apprehension, D? What is it that God is thinking about when he has the thought which is the Pythagorean theorem? There seem to be only a few options:

Either God’s apprehension, D, has content, or it does not. If it has no content, then what is it about D which links it to the Pythagorean theorem, rather than to some other theorem, or to nothing at all? It would be empty and featureless without content.

But, if it does have content, then either the content is that ‘the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides’, or it is something else.

If it does have this as its content, then it seems like the content of D is doing all the work. It seems like the only reason God’s apprehension is linked in any way to the Pythagorean theorem is that it has the theorem as its content. If that is right, then we need to have the proposition itself in the picture for God’s apprehension to be in any way relevant.

Consider what would be the case if the content of God’s apprehension was of something else entirely, like the fact that it all bachelors are unmarried men or something. In that situation, there  would be no reason to say that this apprehension was the Pythagorean theorem. The only divine apprehension that could, even plausibly, look like it is playing the role of the proposition is one which has the proposition as its content.

And if we ask what role God’s apprehension plays here it seems that the answer is that it is just a middle man in between my apprehension and the theorem. It seems to be doing nothing. When I think of the theorem, I have an apprehension, A, and all this is about is one of God’s apprehensions, D, which is itself about the theorem. If p is the Pythagorean therem, and x ⇒ y means ‘x is about y’, then we have:

A ⇒ D ⇒ p

God’s apprehension is just an idle cog which does nothing. Why not just have:

A ⇒ p

Why not just say that I have the theorem as the content of my thought? It would be a much simpler suggestion. Given that for God’s apprehension to be in any way relevant to the proposition in question it has to have the proposition as its content, we seem to require the proposition in the picture anyway. Ockham’s razor should suggest shaving off the unnecessary extra entity in the picture, which is the divine apprehension.

4. Conclusion

Thus, there are really two problems with DC. If construed as the contents of God’s thoughts, divine ‘thoughts’ just are propositions. So for DC to be in any way different from the traditional Fregean picture (where propositions are abstract objects), we have no other option but to construe divine thoughts as divine apprehensions. However, it seems that apprehensions are inherently private, and so they are unsuited to play the role of propositions. Even if we postulate that somehow divine apprehensions are accessible to everyone, they seem to become idle cogs doing nothing.


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