Intelligibility

I

Let me begin by clarifying what the notion of intelligibility says.

1. The first thing to keep in mind is that Religion makes (i.e. transforms, renders, or any such synonym) the Cosmos (used interchangeably with `the world’, `the Universe’, etc) into an entity that is intelligible. In the process, and by virtue of it, the explanatory account makes itself intelligible as well. That is, Religion is an explanatory intelligible account of both itself and the Cosmos.

2. When used as a characteristic (or a property) of a belief, ‘intelligibility’ talks about the meaning of that belief. When we say a belief (or a sentence, a set of sentences, a set of propositions, a story, a description, a theory, etc.) is intelligible we mean that it is `understandable’. Of a set of sentences that conveys nonsense (i.e. does not make sense), we say that it is unintelligible. So, in this sense, any story or explanation is always intelligible if it conveys meaning.

3. What makes some thing (an entity, an action, or an event) intelligible? (This is how we have to pose the question, if we need to understand what Religion is and what it does.) As a first approximation, something (an event, an action, or an entity), is intelligible if, and only if, it expresses the intentions of an agent (and not otherwise). That is to say, if some purpose or the other is exemplified in an event (like opening a door), an action (like eating), or an object (like a check) then such events, actions and entities are intelligible. Thus intelligibility presupposes an agent who not only intends (i.e. hopes, desires, wills, etc) but is also able to express them (in objects, events and actions). This is an epistemological claim: it lays out the necessary condition for some entity to become intelligible. This is very important, and if need be, it can be elaborated upon further.

4. As a second approximation, we can say that an intentional explanation makes some thing (event, action or entity) intelligible. These things become exemplifications of the intentional states (beliefs, hopes, desires, …) of some agent or another. Why am I a Professor? One `why’ refers to the cause: the answer might be, that is because I have been appointed as a professor by the governing Council of the Ghent University. The second `why’ refers to my intention: because I want to to do research and teach. The second is an intentional explanation.

5. In the empirical world we live in, we observe that (a) one and the same action might express different intentions; (b) there are always unintended effects; (c) we might or might not be able to realize our intentions, etc. That is to say, there is no one-to-one correspondence between some intention and some action. Why is this so? Because, there are regularities in Nature and, we assume, these regularities (say, causes) interfere between our intentions and their embodiments.

6. What religion says is this: these regularities (say causes) and the intentions of the Agent fall together. That is, when we speak of God, His intentions and the causes are the same. Such an account is an explanatory intelligible account of the universe.

7. This account itself embodies the intention of the very same Agent as well: not only is the Universe made explanatorily intelligible but also the account that makes the Universe into such a place. That is religion itself is also explanatorily intelligible: God gave religion to human kind because He took mercy (or loves) Humanity and wants to save them (for instance).

8. In other words, both the Universe and the story about it are explanatorily intelligible. That is, in religion (and only in religion) both the causal and the intentional explanation come together and are fused into one another.

9. That is why `God’ is an empirical constraint on religion. His `existence’ has to do with the kind of beings we (humans) are. Religion does not need `God’ to be explanatorily intelligible. Why? Something (an event, action, object) is intelligible to us (humans) if, and only if, that something is an expression of an agent with will, desire, hope, … etc. That is the reason why God is a `person’ in the empirical religions that exist within the human communities. There could be a religion (but not with beings like us humans) that totally dispenses with `God’.

10. I claim that Indian stories are not like this. Whether they are about the Origin of the Cosmos, or about Krishna, they do not make either themselves or the world into explanatorily intelligible entities. These stories are intelligible, to be sure. So is a mathematical or physical theory. I claim that stories do not even explain, but that is for later. For now, what we need to know is what the notion of `intelligibility’ says and does not say.

II

If it is said that the epistemological claim lays down the necessary condition for anything to become intelligible, is this not applicable to `belief’ as well? (After all, there is nothing objectionable to a metaphysics that considers a `belief system’ as a particular kind of entity as well.) That is, does a `belief system’ become intelligible because it instantiates the intentional states of some agent? This is a very tricky question, which is best approached by stages.

1. If the world is the expression of God’s Will, all statements that describe the world are `intelligible’ because these statements are necessarily about God intends. Here, there are two issues: (a) what God intends; and (b) what we think God intends (our ascriptions might or might not be right.) To help us with respect to what we think God intends, (c) there is God’s revelation. But, how we understand this revelation is itself non-trivially dependent on our abilities as well. And so on.

2. If one could exhaustively describe (a), then such a description is completely intelligible to all. Let us call this `Objective intelligibility’. However, the possibility of providing such a description is denied to us, human beings. Consequently, all human beings can do is give a partial description. Whatever be the nature of this partial description, it is intelligible to human beings because, despite its partiality, it is nevertheless a description of the intentions (as we understand them) of God. [That is to say, despite the descriptions being partial, they are intelligible because of the nature of the world. The world guarantees that we understand each other because the world reveals the Will of God.]

2.1. All human beings have the ability to provide a partial description of God’s Will. This ability is given to us by God in two senses: (i) we too have a will and this allows us to grasp the world as an expression of Someone’s Will. (ii) There is an innate sense of divinity in each human being that makes one search for God. (The worship of the Devil is possible only because of this: in our search for God, he makes us believe that he is the true One.)

2.2. In secularized terms, what the above paragraphs are saying is this: meaning (it is being used here as a synonym for `intelligibility’) of linguistic utterances is guaranteed by the nature of the world itself. Let us call this the notion of `Objective meaning’. Human beings can understand each other because their talk is about the world. And this world is the same to all.

3. Each human being can only describe (b), that is, what he takes to be the Will of God. What any individual takes (b) to be the case is a contingent matter: he might or might not be intelligible to another human being who provides another partial description of the world. That is, whether or not some description is intelligible or not to some person or the other is a contingent matter. Let us call this `Subjective intelligibility’. Even if the world guarantees that we can understand each other, it does not imply that everything that is said is also effectively understood. That depends on other contingent factors. However, in principle, we can understand each other.

In secular terms, this would suggest that, even if objective in principle, meaning is subjective in nature. The meaning of linguistic utterances are subjective, i.e. “meaning is in the head”. Each utterance means something to the speaker, which may or may not be the listener’s meaning.

4. God reveals Himself in the Universe, and tells you what His intentions are [This is the option (c)]. That is to say, (c) enables a more accurate description of the world than (b) does. But it is not (a). It is not (a), because your understanding of the God’s revelation is dependent on God’s intentions, which you cannot know on your own. Further, it is up to Him to decide whether or not He gives you the ability to understand the revelation of His intentions.

That is to say, (c) says that it is up to Him to decide (i) how much you understand God’s Will and (ii) how accurate your understanding is. But what is indisputable is that this intelligibility is superior when compared to (b). Let us call this `Inter-subjective intelligibility’. This is superior to `subjective intelligibility’ but inferior to `objective intelligibility’.

In secularized terms, the notion that meaning is somehow `shared’ between speakers is superior to the notion of `subjective’ meaning. This inter-subjectivity, however, is guaranteed by the nature of the world and is possible because we share something or the other in common.

5. Where does this bring us with respect to the question, whether the intelligibility of a belief system depends on it being the expression of some agent’s intentional state? The answer is a yes and a no. The `yes’ part refers to the theological underpinning of the question, while the `no’ refers to its secularization. Because of this, the relation between language and the world must emerge as a problem about reference and meaning in theories and philosophies of language. How can language refer? What is meaning?

6. Let us then picture another culture, the Indian one, which thinks that intentionality is an illusion, even if a necessary one. If the epistemological claim is applicable to them too, it would follow that they would find the world (as it is) indescribable. What is describable would be `true’ only to the extent the illusion about the world is a necessary one. That is, they would think that the description of the world is both true and false. The world “as it really is” cannot be described by language and only the illusory world is so describable. However, because they think that the `truth’ about the world is the realization about the necessity of illusion, they would have to be more concerned about the role of language in leading from the world of illusion to the realization about its illusory nature. Consequently, their reflections about language would be less oriented towards `meaning’ and `reference’. (That is to say, this would not constitute their primary preoccupation.) That means, in so far as they reflected about language they would be more concerned about the syntactical nature of language and would tend to locate `meaning’ in the syntax of language. (They would have to be forerunners in developing a syntactical theory of `meaning’.)

III

Let me pursue the reflections presented earlier on intelligibility. (It tried to suggest that the notion of `understandability’ can be extracted from the notion of intelligibility.) They appear logically related but I am not sure that what I describe is also their logical relation.

1. What does it mean to speak of `beliefs’ as objects? `Beliefs’ are what one `believes in’, i.e. they are propositions (and not sentences). A proposition is the `meaning’ of a sentence. So, a metaphysics that allows beliefs to exist as objects in the world must make `meaning’ a part of the world as well. So, the notion of `meaning of the world’ is the root, from which the notion of `linguistic meaning’ develops. That is, the world has `meaning’; thus language has meaning and thus propositions exist.

2. Indian culture is probably concerned with understanding language not in terms of meaning and reference but in terms of language as speech. Why? I am not sure. But if this is the case, and it is true that (partly because of this) the emphasis is on syntax, then Mantras and reflections about their nature and status would have been of interest to many Indian linguists. Correct speaking and correctly enunciating the Mantra’s would have also interested them very much. (Mantra is not a chant; it is a paradigm example of speech, in that case.) If you couple this with the story about the Ritual in `The Heathen…’, this orientation appears to become almost predictable.

3. Even though they would have the notion of the correspondence theory of truth, it would be more oriented towards the notion of `truth telling’ (because of the emphasis on speech instead of language). Truth would be non-linguistic in nature: truth-telling will help in our search for truth. (If you interpret this in ethical terms, you will get the recommendation that one must become `virtuous’ in order to seek `enlightenment’.)

4. “How is language useful in searching for truth?” This is how one could characterize their research question on language. “Through what kind of speech can you achieve enlightenment?” This is another way of formulating the same issue, even though the questions are not the same. The second would ineluctably refer to the Mantras: all traditions that focus on enlightenment would probably strive to answer this question. This is another way of saying that some kinds of speaking (mantra, japa, etc) are an inseparable moment in achieving `enlightenment’ in all the Indian traditions. More generally put “speaking in the right way” (whether interpreted ethically or ritually or linguistically) would be of paramount importance to the Indian culture.

5. Because truth is non-linguistic in nature, no person can say that he has found the truth. Nor can he describe what it is. It is experiential; one can guide the other using speech towards this end because that is what speech is: a guide.

6. If truth is the goal and truth is experiential, then the (`theoretical’ and practical) reflections would be on the nature of this experience and on the impediments to having this experience. (Maaya and/or avidya conceived as impediments to finding truth.) But Maaya and/or avidya are also experiential (in the sense that they are part of the day-to-day experience in the world). Consequently, the basic focus of the Indian traditions would have to be on the nature of “Experience” (conceived both as truth and as an impediment to finding it). Such knowledge `about’ experience must itself be experiential in nature. That is, it cannot be looked at as `propositional knowledge’ or a `theory’ about experience. Consequently, Indian `philosophy’ will not make much sense, if looked at as theories. Instead, such a view will be a caricature of what they are and what they do. Indian `philosophies’ are not interesting for what they say but for what they do and how they do it.

7. Within the western intellectual tradition, there is also another (perhaps more interesting) trend than the one which looks at meaning as a furniture in the world. The `nominalists’, for instance, focus on words and their `conventional’ meaning. What is of interest to us is that they went the farthest in developing ideas about linguistic tropes, especially analogies and `metaphors’. How to look at them?

8. The answer looks deceptively simple. They stick to the idea of language describing the Will of God (as revealed in the world), but suggest that we could never do it, even with the help of God’s revelation (in the Bible and through the message of the Church). That is to say, our descriptions of God’s intentions are couched in terms of descriptions of ourselves and our intention. Consequently, our description of God’s Will (thus of the world) is more of through analogies with a description of our own. The focus, thus, shifts to `conventional’ meanings precisely because it accepts objective intelligibility as given and on the role played by analogies in describing it.