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No. 34: Paperweights and the Puzzles of Secularism

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 34
Copyright (c) 1997 Biblical Horizons
August, 1997

In his The Construction of Social Reality, Berkeley philosopher John Searle puzzles over the ontology of the products of human construction. Certain things – granite, platypi, weeping willows – occur naturally; while other realities – stone walls, zoos and parks, Chase Manhattan Bank – exist only as products of human construction or organization. Members of the latter, admittedly enormous and diverse, category, are clearly not natural things; so then what are they?

Searle begins with a distinction between features of objects that are intrinsic and those features that are relative to the observer. Given the fundamental ontology of modern thought, derived from physics and biology – that "we live in a world made up entirely of physical particles in _elds of force. Some of these are organized into systems. Some of these systems are living systems and some of these living systems have evolved consciousness" – those features are intrinsic which depend on the physics or biology of the material components of the object in question. It is a statement of an intrinsic feature to say, "That object is a stone."

When we say "That object is a paperweight," we are referring to an observer-relative feature, since we perceive a stone object as a paperweight only because we are members of a culture in which paper is used and in which there is a need to protect paper from the ravages of wind and weather. To the ancient scribe for whom the stone was his paper, the suggestion that he should invent something to prevent his work from _uttering away on a strong breeze would have been nonsensical.

Searle’s puzzle is to discover just how, philosophically speaking, the paperweight di_ers from the lump of stone from which it is made. Chemically and physically there is no di_erence; so moderns, with a scienti_cally formed mindset, may have a nagging sense that it is purely subjective, purely imaginary, to claim that the paperweight is in any important way di_erent from the rock. Nothing is more irritating, on the other hand, than the pseudo-philosophical crank who insists on asking "Yes, but what is it really?" when informed that it is a paperweight.

In presenting his carefully argued answers to these issues, Searle comments, "From a God’s-eye view, from outside the world, all the features of the world would be intrinsic, including intrinsic relational features such as the feature that people in our culture regard such and such objects as screwdrivers. God could not see screwdrivers, cars, bathtubs, etc., because intrinsically speaking there are no such things. Rather, God would see us treating certain objects as screwdrivers, cars, bathtubs, etc." From a Searle-eye view, God knows, and apparently "can" know, only the intrinsic – that is, the physical and/or biological – features of an object: He does not know paperweights as paperweights, only as complexes of particles and systems in various kinds of relationships.

Though Searle’s comment on divine knowledge of human products is made very much in passing, it gets to the heart of the problems that he is addressing, and, for reasons I hope will become clear, must be fundamentally challenged. Surely his characterization of divine knowledge cannot satisfy a Christian. Aside from the question of why God must kowtow to the latest theories in physics and biology, there is the massive evidence of the Bible, in which God speaks of cities as cities, of chariots as chariots, of tools as tools. Searle’s "God" would not, could not, have instructed Moses to write, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house," but rather: "Thy brain shall not release chemicals causing sensations of desire toward the clay or stone or wooden structure in which the conscious living system most proximate to thee dwells." Or something like that.

Yet, Searle is obviously correct that God did not assign the label "paperweight" to that lump of rock on the desk. The label was a human invention. If God now knows paperweights as paperweights, it is because He accepts the human label, and if He knows Simon as Simon and Bethlehem as Bethlehem, it is because He honors parents’ right to name their children and founders’ right to name their cities. Adam named the animals, and whatever he called a living creature, that was its name – also, to judge from the biblical talk of sheep, goats and oxen, for God Himself.

Putting things this way seems to risk subordinating Creator to creature, as if God stands by eagerly waiting to _nd out what name to give to Microsoft’s latest software innovation. To be sure, we must insist that God foreknew and decreed the human naming, so the Creator’s knowledge is not in an ultimate sense dependent upon the creature.

At this point, it is important to note that what is at issue here is not merely the heavenly status, as it were, of human language. Since language is one of the "tools" by which humans act in and shape the world, Searle’s comments about God’s relation to human language raise the broader question of God’s relation to human invention and creative action. Seen in this wider perspective, the idea that God accepts human labels for human products seems risky only if one accepts the essentially modern notion that creativity is a zero-sum game, as it was for secular theorists of the early modern period. If man is a creator, they reasoned, God is proportionately less so. Widening the space of human naming, creativity, and control would on this view necessarily push God deistically to the margins. Once this assumption is accepted, Christians can defend God’s creative sovereignty only by treating human construction and creativity as an embarrassment that must be spoken of as little as possible and then only in a cryptic code like the one parents use to talk of sex around their children. Either that, or capitulate to the secularists and leave the realm of human construction to sociologists.

Or, the zero-sum theory can simply be rejected as fundamentally unChristian, leaving Christians free to a_rm human creativity with all the vigor of secularists, and more. One of the chief architects of a Christian theology of human creativity was the late medieval theologian Nicolas of Cusa, whose work was foundational to that of Vico and other "counter-modern" theologians and thinkers. According to John Milbank’s account, Cusa rooted human creativity in the fact that man is made in the image of the Creator, and divine creativity in the fact that the Father is eternally and essentially "creative" in generating His image, His logos, the Son; and, with the Son, eternally and essentially breathing forth the Spirit. While the creation is not eternal, the Triune God is eternally Creator. Creativity is hence of the essence of beings made in the image of the God who eternally begets His image.

Since human creativity is a re_ection of the creativity of God who makes from nothing, moreover, it is not merely a matter of producing new individual specimens of existing classes of things (generating new individual members of the human race or planting new trees, for example), nor is human creation merely a matter of reshaping material that already exists, retooling the accidents that cling to an underlying and unchanging substance. Rather, humans bring entirely new classes of things into existence in such a way that one is nearly tempted to speak of a kind of creaturely creation ex nihilo. Before Edison successfully made the light bulb, such things simply did not exist; now they really do. And the light bulb is not just a collection of glass, metal, wire; it is a light bulb. For Cusa, this would not have been a philosophical or theological embarrassment, but precisely the kind of thing that Christianity leads us to expect images of the Creator to do.

All this might be an exercise in theological abstraction but for the fact that the zero-sum account of creation is one of the foundation stones of modern secularism. Secularism assumes that what is humanly made is humanly controlled, forming an autonomous sphere where self-interest and the application of an amoral instrumental reason rightly dominate. Since, according to contract theories, society and the state are products of human choice and construction, they are by de_nition outside of God’s concern, control, and even (if we take Searle’s line) the possibility of His attention.

From the Cusan point of view, however, there is an inherently religious element in cultural, social, and political action, in all human construction of things or ideas or institutions. The realm of what Milbank calls "the made" cannot be a secular realm, since all cultural goods are simultaneously human achievements and divine gifts. So God knows and values paperweights, and knows them by their human name, as products of the creative human participation in the ongoing creative activity of the inexhaustibly creative God.