Stories and intelligibility


(I) In a Greek story, Persephone spends part of the year in the underworld and part of the year on earth, and winter is caused by her mother Demeter’s sorrow at parting, and spring by her mother’s joy at reuniting. When taken at face value, this story makes the change of seasons be because of someone’s emotions, and hence intelligible.

Two points with respect to this. (a) I do not think that the story itself would say that winter and spring were caused by the emotions of the mother. Instead, it would say: “her sorrow became, her joy became…” or “thus her sorrow is, her joy is…” or “that is how seasons came into being” or some such formulation. That is because, in my view, this story does not portray causal or other relations between events. That is why it remains beautiful to this day. (b)Here, you are using `intelligibility’ as `understandability’. Having or experiencing emotions is not seen as an intentional state, i.e., not as a propositional attitude. `He is sad because his mother died’ is glossed is `he believes that he is sad because his mother died’, or as `he is sad because he believes that his mother died’. (One indicator for testing the role played by the `that’ clause is: the truth value of the entire sentence does not get affected by the truth value of the sentence occurring after the `that’ clause. That is, the `that’ clause is not truth-functional unlike say `or’, `and’, `if…then’ clauses.) It is important to emphasize that the notion of `intelligibility’ requires that it is an expression of an intentional state and emotions are not seen as intentional states.

(II) The piecemeal intelligible accounts of seasons, thunder, etc., are seen to culminate in the grand unified intelligible account, that is religion.

Again two points. (a) If thunder, etc., express, say, the emotions of some beings, it makes them intelligible only in the sense of `understandable’. (b) Religion need not explain thunder, etc. to be an explanatorily intelligible account. One can say, for instance, that thunder is caused by natural factors and then say, `that is how God has willed it’ to get us there. Do not forget that religion not only makes the world intelligible but does so explanatorily. (All intentional explanations make actions intelligible; that does not make the former into `religions’.)

(III) In Karnataka, people are pouring into mosques and temples to pray for rain. Does the idea that prayer can influence the Deity to cause rain imply that people have an intelligible account of the rain?

Three responses. (a) One way to account for this is to look at how I speak of `rain dance’ in my “We shall not cease…” (It occurs in the context of my reflections on stories towards the end.) (b) People might say that the deity might bring down rain if (i) he wants it or (ii)’wills’ it (though in Kannada, the expressions for `willing’ coincide with `wanting to’, `desirous of’ and such like). It need not imply that this attitude arises out having an explanatorily intelligible account of the Cosmos: the power of the deity might reside in its ability to bring down the rain one way or another. (iii) Could one interpret this as an expression of them having a religion? Of course. That is how it has been interpreted thus far.

(IV) I read somewhere that in some villages, the “marriage of a frog” is done to bring rainfall, but let’s take this as a made-up example if it doesn’t happen. Now, here, there need not be any intelligibility; for instance, [the underlying idea may be that proliferation of frogs and the rainy season coincide, and this hasn’t been broken up into cause and effect. Therefore, making one of the events happen increases the probability of the other.] There is no theory of the natural forces having intentions, etc. here. So this is an account of phenomena with no intelligibility?

The example is not an account (i.e. is not an explanation) but a description of what some people do. The sentences between square brackets (I have added them to your formulations) begin the process of explanation by surmising a probabilistic relation in their `understanding’ of the world. Thus, yes, you provide an explanation that is not intentional.

(V) Dadaji Athavale of Swadhyaya teaches that when we sing praises of devas in bhajans or mantras, we are not propitiating some external deity; we are rather reminding ourselves of certain qualities so as to imbibe them, inculcate them in ourselves. Perhaps a modern theory, but Indra,Agni,Vayu, etc., are not personalized natural forces, but represent divine qualities that we aspire to. Does this idea represent no intelligibility?

Two responses. (a)Dadaji’s teaching is one possible `intentional’ explanation of why we pray. (It is not mine, but that is irrelevant for now.) Idem., about the modern theory. (b) There are three questions here that require separation: (i) what are deities? The answer is that they are human qualities allegorized; (ii) why do we pray? This is provided with an intentional explanation; (iii) what is prayer? The answer is that it is an act of reminding and not an act of propitiation.

Finally, yet again, two more points. (i) Do not forget that religion brings causal and intentional explanations together and all intentional explanations make an action or an event intelligible. Religion requires a fusion of both these two types of explanation. (ii) Do not forget that religion is an account of the Cosmos, i.e. all that was, is, and shall be. This includes the primordial plasma; our ancestors; ghosts and spirits if they exist; everything that could ever exist in this universe. Nothing is so far (back or ahead) in time that it does not belong to this universe; nothing is so far away (in space) that it is not a part of this universe. Religion makes this entity explanatorily intelligible.