Vanhoozer and Supervenience

I was reading back over some of Vanhoozer’s articles-turned-chapters in First Theology the other day and came across his use of supervenience. I recall that he has affinity to the term in Drama of Doctrine as well. It has been a long time since I’ve looked at Drama but I do recall not liking his use of supervenience there, thinking that he moved to philosophical constructs too quickly, and that, ultimately, supervenience works against theology rather than for it. For all the Vanhoozerites out there (and we know you’re out there!), I was wondering what you think of this. Do you find this term helpful? What do you think it allows him to do? In First Theology (chapter on efficacious call), he doesn’t employ it as much as use it, but even there I didn’t find it particularly helpful.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with supervenience, it is often employed in naturalistic arguments in Philosophy of Mind to explain emergent properties, in that case, mental properties (but not limited to that discussion). Therefore, naturalistic philosophers can talk about true mental activity that is beyond reductionistic explanation. If I recall correctly, which I may not be, Vanhoozer seeks to use it in Drama to explain how the divine and human word interrelate. In my mind, the term supervenience is solely used as a bottom up explanation and has no real use for any top down work – which I think theologians should be more concerned with. I might be mistaking his usage though. Any thoughts? Is this term helpful, useful or total rubbish?

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11 thoughts on “Vanhoozer and Supervenience

  1. Let me qualify my comments by saying ‘First Theology’ is on my list to read and have not done so as of yet.

    However, being a philosopher who is now attending a graduate degree in theology, I do not see the term to be intrinsically harmful.

    The tools of philosophy ought be used to aid theological inquiry. To dismiss one as ‘rubbish’ in and of itself and not because of its use has the markings of shortsightedness all over it.

    Now, as far as Vanhoozer’s specific usage of it, maybe it is rubbish. Who know. Any tool can become a weapon if used a certain way.

  2. Hi Kyle,

    I’ve read the first two hundred pages or so of Vanhoozer’s _Drama of Doctrine_ but I don’t recall him using the notion of supervenience there.

    Question: what is the difference between employing a term and using it?

    Re bottom-up vs top-down explanation: I think supervenience is neutral here. Take the following three cases. (1) For example, suppose it is true (it’s not but…) that the macro supervenes on the micro. That is, all macro phenomena can be explained via micro phenomena but not the other way around. This is a kind of reductionism but it does not try to eliminate the macro. Instead it simply makes the micro more fundamental and the macro derivative (see below on why this is technically mistaken but it’s not a big deal). (2) But perhaps it is true that the micro supervenes on the macro (this is an Aristotelian position, at least for some phenomena). That is, the whole is in some sense prior to the part and the whole explains the part (this, I think, is true for a number of phenomena). This is a perfectly felicitious use of the notion of supervenience (again, see below for clarification). (3) Now perhaps both (1) and (2) are wrong. That is, perhaps the micro does not supervene on the macro and the macro does not supervene on the micro, but both supervene on either other without reduction or elimination (that is, without identity betwen the two things that are supervening). In this case, we have neither top-down nor bottom-up explanation but something different altogether, perhaps circular, perhaps not. Either way, supervenience, by itself is silent on bottom-up vs top-down explanations.

    Now, because of supervenience’s silence on the issue of fundamentality, I think you may be right about its (supervenience’s) utility in theological contexts. It just does not do enough work. Indeed, I suspect the same is true within philosophy as well.

    What follows is just a bit of clarification and some application (it’s somewhat controversial but here goes):

    Supervenience is a techinal concept that is supposed to highlight instances of property co-variation. As such, supervenience is reflexive (for any property p, p supervenes on itself) and non-asymmetric (for any pair of properties p, q, if p supervenes on q, then q may or may not supervene on p).

    Nevertheless, most of the time that supervenience is used the author has something stronger in mind, namely, a relation such that if p supervenes on q, then there cannot be a change in p without a change in q, but there can be a change in q without a change in p. Note that this relation is not the same as the supervenience relation spelled out above–i.e. this relation is not reflexive and it is asymmetric.

    So most philosophers believe that the moral supervenes on the natural. By this they mean that if there is a change in the moral status of something (a person or an act let’s say), there must also be a change in the natural features of the situation, but that the natural features of a situation could change without a change in the moral status of that situation (e.g. you might lose a hair today and nothing morally change). If that’s right, then it is false to say that the moral supervenes on the natural AND the natural supervenes on the moral. Indeed, most use the notion of supervenience in this way.

  3. Hi, Kyle (and others),

    For what it’s worth, I don’t know of any philosophers who use the “something stronger” notion of supervenience that David A mentions. That is, most philosophers, when they say that A supervenes on B, only mean that there can’t be an A-ish difference without a B-ish difference. (Now, this in itself is not very informative, and there’s an excellent discussion of why that’s so—that you should by no means read!—by Brian MacLaughlin in his “Varieties of Supervenience; basically, there’s just loads of ways of clarifying a number of matters in that general notion.) It *is* true, however, that many philosophers, when they think that A supervenes on B, *also* think that A depends (or some such) on B, and that there can be B-ish differences without there being A-ish differences. But that’s an *additional* claim, and one that most philosophers realize they’re making.

    Now, if Vanhoozer thinks (and I wouldn’t know, so it’s a serious *if*!) that what God says in the Scriptures supervenes on what the human authors say, that seems pretty plausible. For plausible that, if God would have revealed something that he didn’t, the human authors would have had to say something different as well. (Supervenience the other way strikes me as pretty implausible, since I think it’s clear that God could have said the same thing through different human words, though I’m open to being talked out of that. But, for example, he could have revealed through authors who were native English speakers, rather than native Greek speakers, or whatever.)

    That much, in my view, is just harmless. But, on the other hand, it’s radically uninformative as a doctrine of inspiration, since there’s all sorts of theories that are compatible with that claim (dictation theory and verbal-plenary come to mind, e.g.). So I don’t know what a claim about supervenience would be meant to illuminate. But then I think that appeals to supervenience are almost always dodges. :)

  4. Thanks everyone, I’m currently on vacation so this conversation is a bit deep for my thinking right now! My read of Vanhoozer is not that he shouldn’t use philosophical terminology, but that he has dogmatic resources that could be put to work further than he seems to go – and would therefore provide a bit more of a framework for the philosophical language. I need to go back and look at his usage there though.

  5. Hi Tim,

    You may be right. I should not have said what I did (or at least I should not have said without giving references, which I think I can do). Here’s what I should have said: what claims about supervenience often do is point us towards something interesting but often the supervenience claim itself is not that interesting. That’s what I had in mind when I mentioned the idea of fundamentality.

    Now, it is interesting to note that most philosophical applications of supervenience assume the something stronger that I mentioned (and many do not go on to argue for the stronger). So, in the case of moral supervenience, just about everyone (other than me) believes that the moral supervenes on the natural, just about no one believes that the natural supervenes on the moral. But just about no one thinks they need to even mention the latter because, it is either obvious or because they are assuming that the former in some sense rules it out. Simon Blackburn’s supervenience argument against moral realism seems to assume that if the moral supervenes on the natural then the natural fixes the moral features but not vice versa. Indeed, Blackburn’s entry on supervenience in the Routledge Encyc. of Philosophy presents supervenience as asymmetrical (I think; it has been years since I read his essay and I do not have access–please correct me if I am wrong).

    The Stanford Encyc. entry notes that “Often, when someone asserts that A supervenes on B, she also wants to say that A-properties ontologically depend upon B-properties” and that’s all I really had in mind (even though what I said was much stronger and rightly criticized. Of course, the Stanford article goes on to note that supervenience does not get one dependency.

  6. By the way, thanks Tim for the Mclaughlin reference. I think I read his piece years ago but I may have missed it. I’ll take a look at it.

  7. One more comment. Tim wrote: “I don’t know of any philosophers who use the “something stronger” notion of supervenience that David A mentions.” Well, after doing a very quick google search I found Robert Stalnaker’s “Varieties of Supervenience” where he opens the discussion by claiming that he can distinguish two ways the notion of supervenience has been used in the literature. The first is clearly reductionistic and the other is not. So, while what I said was way to strong I think Tim now knows (or will know after verifying my claims) of some philosophers who recognize the kind of use I was pointing to. (Or better, what Tim conversationally implied was too strong as well).

  8. Hi, Davida,

    I hope my comment about not knowing of any didn’t sound snarky. It wasn’t meant to be.

    But regardless, I don’t think the Stalnaker paper substantiates a claim contrary to what I said. First of all, if one reduces A properties to B properties (for example), then there is a definite symmetry there, and it’s not clear at all to me that one can even make sense of any sort of dependence there, since there aren’t *two* things such that one could be dependent on the other. Second, the evidence Stalnaker gives for that usage are Parfit, who never uses the word `supervenience’ and so can’t rightly be described as employing a notion of supervenience at all, and Lewis, who doesn’t take Humean supervenience to be *merely* a supervenience thesis. (His general views about how philosophical theorizing works are important for understanding what he means by `Humean supervenience’.) So I just disagree with Stalnaker that those two notions are, as it were, already present in the literature. Third, the key to what you quote for the Stanford Ency is the `also’; McLaughlin and Bennett think that dependence, much less asymmetry, are not guaranteed by supervenience claims. That’s why people must *also* make the further dependence claim.

    On the other hand, David Armstrong may be a counterexample to what I said, given that he thinks that supervening properties are “ontological free lunches”. He had slipped my mind. But on a third hand, no one who I know of thinks he’s right about this. Thus, for example, you see people talking about “superdupervenience” in discussions of materialism, which is meant to imply just the dependency relation that supervenience, by its very nature, does not. (See, for example, Jessica Wilson’s papers on this.)

    Now, in the case of moral properties, I think the reason why people don’t mention anything about the natural not supervening on the moral is because it pretty obviously doesn’t. It’s implausible to think there couldn’t be a natural difference without a moral difference. For example, changing the color of a shirt that a rapist is wearing isn’t going to change the moral status of his action. (And, lest one think the color of a shirt isn’t relevant: since the “victory” of externalism about mental and semantic content, most folks in the metaphysics/phil mind world formulate their supervenience theses using global supervenience. Whether the same is true in moral philosophy, I’m not competent to say, though I suspect they should, for similar reasons that the folks I am familiar with do.) So I take the disjunct that says it’s obvious that the natural doesn’t supervene on the moral, not the one that says the other supervenience thesis rules such a claim out. :)

    Kyle, I think I just agree with you, if it’s true that Vanhoozer only makes a supervenience claim, that he needs to do more. But I’d be interested in hearing what the “dogmatic” resources are that he could put to use.

  9. Hi Tim,

    I hope we are not taking this thread in directions completely contrary to Kyle’s intentions. If so, Kyle, please shut us down.

    On boring issues:

    Tim: I hope my comment about not knowing of any didn’t sound snarky. It wasn’t meant to be.

    ME: No problem.

    Tim wrote: “First of all, if one reduces A properties to B properties (for example), then there is a definite symmetry there.”

    ME: Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but are you suggesting that reduction is a symmetrical relation?

    On interesting issues:

    Tim wrote: It’s implausible to think there couldn’t be a natural difference without a moral difference.

    Me: Perhaps, though I don’t think it’s as obvious as it sounds, especially when one approaches it from the following supervenience thesis: the evaluative supervenes on the non-evaluative. Suppose either of the following: (a) the evaluative does not supervene on the non-evaluative (i.e. there can be evaluative differences without non-evaluative differences) or (b) the non-evaluative supervenes on the evaluative (no non-evaluative difference without an evaluative one). It seems to me that the truth of either (a) or (b) puts some pressure on the claim that the non-moral does not supervene on the moral.

    Re (a): some think that divine command theories somehow show that (a) is either true (either because DCT are true or because the moral supervenience claims are supposed to be conceptual truths and not merely metaphysical ones, and thus, given that DCT is conceptually possible,….) or not obviously so.

    Re (b): Suppose that moral properties just are natural properties (i.e. are identical to natural properties). Doesn’t it follow then that natural properties supervene on moral properties? Or, perhaps the identity of goodness and being is true. Same thing follows, doesn’t it? Now we might still be able to carve out a moral/natural (or better, a moral/non-moral) supervenience claim here, but it is going to be interestingly different from what was initially intended.

    Tim: For example, changing the color of a shirt that a rapist is wearing isn’t going to change the moral status of his action.

    ME: That’s a familar type of case. However, suppose that some version of consequentialism is true (I may need a particular version here, I am not sure) and we discover that certain colors increase (decrease) pleasure (or whatever relevant axiological states) in significant ways. If so, then changing the color of his shirt may not affect the moral status of the rape, qua rape, but it wil affect the moral status of the changing of his shirt, qua changing of his shirt.

    Furthermore, even if consequetialism in all of its guises is false (and I am inclined to think it is) there may be a different way to challenge the idea that changing the color of ones shirt is not a moral action. For one, as far as I understand him, Aquinas seems to think that if something is an action, then it is thereby moral. That is, all actions (properly so-called) are moral acts. If that’s right, and if changing the color of one’s shirt is an action, then….

    Okay, so perhaps the thing to do is simply change the example. That may help, but I we can show that it won’t be obviously true (or trivial).

    Re global supervenience: There are interesting complications with using global supervenience as the relevant version for cashing our moral supervenience claims. The complications that I have in mind are or should be familar to you from the phil mind lit, so I am interested in hearing how phil mind folks handle them.

    Two worlds alike in non-mental properties must be alike in mental properties. But as Kim notes this makes it possible for one world to differ from another in a very small detail (minus on atom) and thus differ completely in its mental properties. The same worries, it seems (though I have not seen this discussed in the lit), arise wrt global moral supervenience.

  10. I’m afraid this will have to be my last post on this. Too much grading to do! (In light of that, I’ll skip the “boring issues”.)

    I don’t see any reason to think that your (a) puts pressure on the claim that the non-moral doesn’t supervene on the moral. As for (b), it’s more or less the claim that the non-moral supervenes on the moral, so of course it puts pressure on it. But I gave a counterexample to that claim, so I wouldn’t buy (b). (Now, you suggested if moral properties are natural properties, then the natural would supervene on the moral. But that seems right only if *every* natural property is a moral property, which I don’t see any reason to believe given a belief in moral naturalism.)

    As for my counterexample, if you don’t like the shirt color case, find another. Just make the fact “psychologically hidden” (if you will) to both parties. Suppose that the rapist has one less hair on his head, or that one hair is one-ten-millionth of a millimeter shorter, or whatever. Pick something that neither of them could notice, given human limitations. Then you’ll find that the natural doesn’t (globally) supervene on the moral. As for the point from Aquinas, from the fact that all actions are moral, it doesn’t follow that all actions differ in their moral properties (much less that all natural facts have moral features, since not all natural facts involve actions). Different natural acts can have the same moral features. This, from where I sit, makes it all the more plausible that the natural doesn’t supervene on the moral, since it seems to me that one could change even morally relevant features of an action and still instantiate all the same moral properties.

    Regarding the “troubles” with global supervenience, most that I know of just aren’t troubled by them, precisely because global mental-physical supervenience is all one can hope to get in an externalist world. How that carries over to the moral case, I don’t know. As should now be clear, though, I don’t think it’s hard at all to produce counterexamples to the claim that the natural supervenes on the moral even given a stronger supervenience claim, since I think merely similar actions can have identical moral features. It doesn’t matter how many steps you took when you helped the old lady across the street!

  11. Hi Tim,

    I’ll try to come up with something better later but here’s a first pass at some of what you said. Thanks, by the way, for the interaction.

    Tim: I don’t see any reason to think that your (a) puts pressure on the claim that the non-moral doesn’t supervene on the moral.

    ME: (a): the evaluative does not supervene on the non-evaluative. You are right to question me on this one. What I had in mind is simple though. The claim that the evaluative supervenes on the non-evaluative is supposed to be obvious (and it’s converse just as obviously false). But if after a bit of thinking we come to believe that (a) is not so obvious, this, it seems, gives us some reason to worry about the other stuff in the neighborhood we thought was so obvious.

    You are right about my (b). My poin was simply to widen the parameters of the discussion. One reason why it may be helpful to widen the parameters is illustrated by your discussion of psychologically hidden facts. That may be relevant to the moral/non-moral case and it may be irrelevant to the evaluative/non-evaluative case.

    Tim: Pick something that neither of them could notice, given human limitations.

    ME: Right, that’s why I wanted to widen the scope of the discussion to the evaluative/non-evaluative case. Even still we can imagine crazy consequentialist scenarios where all of the stuff you care to mention is morally relevant, at least in an objective sense, if not in a subjective sense.

    Tim: As for the point from Aquinas, from the fact that all actions are moral, it doesn’t follow that all actions differ in their moral properties (much less that all natural facts have moral features, since not all natural facts involve actions).

    ME: I’m having trouble seeing the relevance of the first “it doesn’t follow that”. My point was that the action you cited (changing one’s shirt) is moral, given Aquinas’s position. So, we did not have a case of a natural difference with no moral difference.

    Now, the second “it doesn’t follow that” is much more important. I do think that all natural facts have moral features (or better that all natural facts have evaluative features) precisely because I do think that all natural facts involves actions, namely, divine actions.

    Tim: Different natural acts can have the same moral features.

    ME: But this just is what we are discussing, so, of course this claim makes it all the more plausible that the natural doesn’t supervene on the moral.

    I do see the force of these considerations. What I am hoping to get you and others to see is that there intitial obviousness diminishes when we start to really think about different normative theories (consequentialism, divine command theory) and difference metaethical theories (being = good, any theory that denies the fact/value distinction).

    Tim: It doesn’t matter how many steps you took when you helped the old lady across the street!

    ME: Oh but it might. One more step and that bus would have…. Well you know :-) But seriously, being economical in our physical and mental pursuits is a virtue of sorts. Perhaps there is some vagueness here. Twenty more steps and time, energy, etc is wasted. Twenty less steps and the street is not crossed, etc.

    Furthermore, if being = goodness then any increase in being is an increase in goodness and a decrease in being is a decrease in goodness. So, more steps, more being, more goodness :-).

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