Some Philosophical Thoughts on Identity and Attributes

This article will be a little bit of a departure from the usual fare of biblical exegesis or criticism of false theology. It’s still going to be a criticism of some bad arguments about theology, but these are philosophical arguments, and I think the people making the arguments are not as adept as they think they are at tackling the questions they are answering. But more on that later.

Something many who read this blog or watch my videos may not know is that my undergraduate degree is in philosophy. My favorite subject within philosophy was logic, and my senior year I took a special topics course on the metaphysics of material objects.

I’ll try to bring you up to speed on some vocabulary if you haven’t studied philosophy formally, “metaphysics” in this context is the study and discussion of reality itself. It asks what things really are, not necessarily how we know them , which is epistemology, the study of how we know things.

In that course, I read an article that I can no longer remember title or author of on the problem of the candle. The article was addressing the philosophical problem of the endurance of objects through time and change. This problem comes up because of another idea, what has been called “Leibniz’s Law”. More formally, it is called the indiscernibility of identicals. What this states, which seems rather ironclad, is that an object of any kind shares all of its attributes with itself. That may sound odd, so I’ll put it another way. If object A and object B are identical, meaning object A just is object B, then if object A has an attribute, then so does object B. The classic example of this is the example of Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens. Samuel Clemens used the pen name “Mark Twain” for his books. These are just two names for the same man. As such, Leibniz’s Law would hold that any attribute possessed by Samuel Clemens is also possessed by Mark Twain.

Ok, so that is fairly uncontroversial and hopefully pretty easy so far. So what is the candle problem? That problem has to do with the fact that at various times, a candle will be in possession of an unlit wick, a lit wick, be different heights, etc. If candle A is 6 inches tall and candle B is 4 inches tall, are they the same candle? What if candle A and B are just the same candle at different times, one after having been lit and used up some of its height in the process? It would seem that if Leibniz’s Law is true without qualification, then every moment, as things go through changes, they become new things and the thing that was there before ceases to exist.

There are also multiple other ways of expressing this problem, but this article isn’t mainly about this problem. What it’s about is the difficulty we have with accurately expressing what seems to be the simplest things. The problem of the candle has caused many contemporary philosophers to come up with what sound like outlandish definitions of what counts as an object, so as to avoid the apparent contradictions that arise from simple questions like the candle problem.

Peter Van Inwagen attempts to solve the problem this way. He says there are only two kinds of objects, simples and lives. Simples are just whatever the smallest indivisible particle of matter is. By definition, such objects cannot change, and so that solves the issue of change over time for them. His view completely excludes most composite objects as being properly called objects at all. The simples might be arranged like a table, but tables don’t exist, properly speaking. But there is one kind of composite object that does exist, and that is a living thing. When simples are caught up in an event called a life, they do, for a time, compose an object that is a living thing. This defines the living object only in terms of the event of its living, and not in terms of other physical attributes. A person’s hair color may change over her life, but hair color isn’t what defines the person as a person. It is the life that does this.

Now, the preceding is shared primarily to give you some idea that I know what the issues are when we are discussing things like attributes and identity. So let’s apply this to theology.

In many areas of theology, people are often quick to condemn others due to how they understand and define their theology, whether that’s God or who Jesus is, or various other things. Now, there are real distinctions God makes in Scripture where He draws lines that condemn certain things that go against Him. So don’t take anything I’m about to discuss as some kind of squishy human philosophy meant to promote including heresy in the faith handed down.

What I mean to do is try to establish why we don’t use arguments based solely on things like Leibniz’s law to draw lines of inclusion or exclusion from the faith. This will become clearer as we look at some examples.

I’ll start by asking this question. How wrong can you be about Jesus before you are outside the faith? Consider these statements about Jesus.

  1. Jesus is God
  2. Jesus is a man
  3. Jesus is not God
  4. Jesus is an eight-armed fertility goddess
  5. Jesus had short hair

So, protestant Christians would generally agree with statements 1 and 2, consider 3 and 4 heretical, meaning if you hold them you don’t have the same Jesus, and possibly have an opinion about 5, or not, but not think it’s very important. Other theological positions would disagree on the truth of 1-4, and may also disagree on whether you are outside the true faith by having a different Jesus by holding to those statements that they reject, but almost all positions would agree that 5 is not important enough to divide over.

The thing about Leibniz’s Law is that it seems to hold regardless of what type of attribute we’re talking about. Anything true of Samuel Clemens is also true of Mark Twain, right? And this is the issue when we are talking about Jesus. How wrong can you be and still be following the true Jesus? On the one hand, you often hear people making arguments that appeal to some equivalent of Leibniz’s Law, even if the person never actually heard of it. They say things like, “If your Jesus is x, then that’s different from the biblical Jesus, so you have a false religion.” And sometimes, nothing is off the table. If you believe differently on any point of doctrine at all, you are outside the faith. On the other end of the spectrum, you have people who say you can worship the equivalent of an eight-armed fertility goddess, and if you call it Jesus, you’re a Christian. This kind of thing is most often found in the more liberal churches, and comes in the form of defining God or Jesus by whatever terms are popular in the culture at the moment, no matter how unbiblical those attributes are.

So you have the strict hyper-fundamentalist on the one hand, and the squishy liberal on the other. One uses a form of Leibniz’s Law to exclude everyone who disagrees with him about any trivial thing from salvation. The other appears to reject any definition at all, saying you can define God however you like.

But how do Christians who believe the Scriptures to be the worldview-defining word of God express the faith in such a way as to avoid these two ditches? If you are too inclusive in your definition, you have no safeguard against having to accept literally any definition of Christ. If you employ some form of Leibniz’s Law, you make an argument so strong that people cannot have the same Christ if they believe differently about what He meant in any small detail when He talked about living water to the woman at the well.

Are you beginning to see the problem? Maybe you don’t. There are plenty of folks who are either in cults or have the mindset of a cultist, believing that only those with their exact theology, down to every detail, have been made fit for the kingdom of God. All others are excluded. If that’s you, then you have settled on one potential solution to this problem. You simply accept one of the extreme positions and call it a day. Likewise, if you are at the other extreme, thinking that everyone’s theology and Christology is equally valid, and no one can possibly have “the” truth, then you don’t really need to consider this problem. You’ve accepted the other extreme. I’m sure you just love being called an extremist. But that is the other extreme end of this spectrum of belief.

Now, for most Christians, we don’t really like either end of this spectrum. But that leaves us with a problem still unsolved. Where do we draw the line? More importantly for us each personally, how do we know we are on the right side of that line, wherever it is? Or to put it another way while you’re trying to think of the answer, the way I posed it at the outset, how wrong can we be about Christ and still be able to say we are worshiping and following the true Christ? If we’re wrong about even one thing, do we still have Christ?

I’ll let you think about that for a moment.

Do you think you know? Let me put one more idea into this post before I get to what I think the answer is. As I said at the outset, this is more philosophical than most of what I write, despite my area of education. This might surprise some of you if you regularly consume apologetic content. Thanks to the likes of eminent apologists like William Lane Craig, it seems many of the younger crowd of apologists are very interested in philosophy. Crafting syllogisms and pondering possible worlds is all the rage. I know the game. I’ve been there. I paid the money and got the degree.

Here’s what I think of all that, though. There is value in understanding the fundamentals of logic, so that you can rightly express how truths relate to one another. There is value in understanding the questions that have occupied the minds of philosophers past so that you can avoid silly mistakes of thinking that others have already posted the warning signs for. And these things are good.

But let’s get back to the question at hand. Have you figured it out yet? How much can we be wrong about Christ before we simply don’t have Christ anymore? Do you know?

If you really do, I can guarantee one thing. You did not reach your conclusion by the exercise of pure reason alone. Pure reason gives you Leibniz’s Law. And clearly, if you are wrong about anything, no matter how small, about Christ, then the Christ in your head isn’t the real one, right? And if you don’t think that, there are no non-arbitrary stopping points between there and complete anarchy of definition.

If you do have meaningful lines you can draw, though. I know how you got them. You got them from the Scriptures, not philosophical exercise. Maybe you got them from some other religious authority than Scripture, depending on your religion, but I’m not here to argue about that now. The point I wanted to make in this post ought to be clear by now.

This is a philosophical argument meant to show the folly of depending on philosophy to define either true theology or how to distinguish true from false theology. I can even express it in a syllogism if you like.

  1. If philosophy can find true theology, then philosophy can draw appropriate lines between true and false theology, while avoiding the extremes of hyper-fundamentalism and hyper-inclusivism.
  2. Philosophy cannot draw appropriate lines between true and false theology, while avoiding the extremes of hyper-fundamentalism and hyper-inclusivism.
  3. Therefore, philosophy cannot find true theology.

For the Christian, true religion is a revealed religion. It is not arrived at by any form of inquiry. It is not found by seekers because seekers have figured anything out. When Jesus said “seek and you shall find”, He also said, “Ask and you shall receive…knock and it will be opened to you”. Seeking God truly is like making a request, or knocking at a door. Its success does not depend on the depth of your understanding. It depends on the Giver, the Opener of the door. What we can find by seeking is that which has been revealed from God to man, without reference to syllogism, but with all the power of truth such that we can begin reasoning from there.

Now, if you were reading for a list of what counts as the appropriate lines to draw between belief and unbelief, you won’t find that in this article. As I said, this is a philosophical piece, and philosophy can’t do that.