Interesting comments on my post about one God/different Gods. Musings:

1. I should think more about the role that theism plays in the definite-descriptions view. My intuition is that, should God exist, it would be easier to say that both Christian and Islamic thought refer to that Thing rather than to different things. My further intuition is that this is so because of the centrality of certain descriptions to the reference of the name, i.e., if we find out that there’s a Being who created the world, etc., but He is really tripartite, we’d say, yikes, turns out the Christians were right about the Being we worshipped rather than saying that we were worshipping a nonexistent entity. If atheism is true, it might be harder to secure shared reference because there’s no there, there.

2. I should expand on my opaque remark about error theory, in case anyone is interested. Let me tell you a story. Suppose you think that moral properties are part of the world independent of our judgment. RM Hare calls this view “descriptivism” (because moral claims describe), and he gives this neat argument against it.

Imagine a Christian missionary landing on a cannibal island. Both the missionary and the cannibal use “good” (or “right” or…) to evaluate and commend, but they have very different criteria for applying those terms. The descriptivist is forced to say that “good” (or whatever) means different things coming from Christian and Cannibal: when the Christian says it, it just means meek, mild, etc., and when the Cannibal says it it means fierce, scalp-taking, etc. So they don’t really disagree, according to the descriptivist story; they’re simply using different terms. But they do disagree. Hence, descriptivism is false.

For a long time this argument looked pretty convincing. Then Kripke’s “Naming and necessity” convinced a lot of people that proper names picked out individuals because of the causal ties between a name and what it names, and a little later Putnam and Burge and others extended this in various ways to, for example, natural kind terms. Descriptivists (under different names) took up the thought and ran with it: maybe Christian and Cannibal are talking about the same thing because their use of “good” is causally tied to the property goodness despite their differences in theory. If so, the Hare argument looks bad. (You don’t actually need a causal view of reference; you might also do the same work with a sophisticated descriptions view or in some other way. All you need is a way of putting some space between the real referent and what the speaker thinks.)

So how does that tie into error theory? Error theorists think there are no moral properties. Hence they can’t say that Christian and Cannibal (or any other speakers with big disagreements) are causally attached to the same property. If they want to preserve the intuition that moral speakers disagree with one another, they need an account of how these speakers are arguing about one thing rather than talking about different fictions. Harder to do! If I remember Olson’s talk right, he uses this sort of argument against one sort of error theory that says our discourse about morality is like our talk about fictions, and he claims that this doesn’t make sense of disagreement. A lot of the questions were along these lines: but we can argue about fictions even when there’s no canonical text! E.g., fights over fan fiction. And furthermore you might think there is a canonical text of sorts, namely, our cluster of agreed-upon intuitions about cases and principles.