Nonfixity of Events



In his recent book, Deeper Exegesis, Peter Leithart suggests that texts are analogous to events. The analogy holds, he says, because events, like texts, change over time. What one text meant in one context is different to what it means when read at a different time. Events are similar, according to Leithart, they are not static, but subject to change over time as new properties are added to them.

Although interpretation of text changes over time, I think it is a mistake to suggest texts are like events because they change over time. Events are ontologically slippery, but the view espoused by Leithart may actually negate some pretty basic views Leithart would hold as a Christian, particularly the nature of a human being.

Just what is an event? Events happen, take place, occur or fail to do so. The popular view is that an event is a entity made up of particulars, a time and a set of properties (Kim, 1980).

In contrast, David Weberman, from whom Leithart gets his view, suggests that an event changes over time as we describe it from a later vantage point. His claim is not merely that we understand an event differently, but that the event itself changes as we interpret it from a later perspective. That is not also to say that a later description causes the event in question, a case of reverse causation, but that the properties of an event are added to it over time.

The claim rests on an identity thesis. Applying a conventional identity thesis, event e is identical to event e' if and only if event e and event e' have all the same constitutive particulars, properties, and times (Loux p. 148). If properties are added at a later time then event e and e' are non-identical. Either there are two events with identical particulars and times, but with different properties or there is one event that has changed due to the addition of new properties.

Weberman points out that the properties in question are extrinsic properties, leading some to claim that for an event to change the properties in question must be intrinsic. Weberman suggests there are no real grounds for accepting this since extrinsic properties are properties nonetheless. Furthermore, it is not always easy to distinguish an intrinsic and extrinsic property when it comes to events.

Another objection relates to what we might mean by an extrinsic property of an object in an event. What determines an extrinsic property of an object in an event? Is it just to say that an extrinsic property is a property that is added or taken away from the object depending upon the time in which the object is described? If so, then Weberian's argument is circular. Lowe, for example, argues that an event just is a change of properties, extrinsic or intrinsic, occurring to a given object.

Lowe argues that events should be distinguished from actions. Take Tom's action of pouring a poison into Jim's glass. This is an action carried out by an agent that causes the event of the death of Jim. Lowe argues that to treat actions and events as the same thing is to commit one to the idea that causes are events. If an agent causes an event and the cause is itself an event we are left with the conclusion that a cause is a particular located in space and time. But it would be strange to ask where and when the cause took place (Lowe, 223).

Some do, however, suggest that an action is an event. An action of a human being is a human being undergoing bodily movements. We describe such an event in terms of action and agency, but what we mean is that an event has taken place. Donald Davidson, who I take Weberman as being influenced by, suggests this view.

If Lowe is right then Leithart should have good reason to be suspicious of Weberman's thesis.  A view of human action that reduces it to an event removes some of what theology tells him about the nature of human agency, namely that human agency involves freely chosen actions that are causally efficatious and for which the agent is morally responsible. Davidsonians might say that these descriptions are legitimate, but are surely not fundamentally part of an ontology that sees human actions as events. They are legitimate because whatever description we use for the event/action it is the same effect. Tom tipped the poison or Tom killed Jim are legitimate in that they both result in the effects of the poison being tipped or Jim dying.

According to the Davidsonian/Webermanian view, a human being is primarily a body onto which mental properties supervene. Consequently, actions carried out by human beings are ontologically events involving physical things while, at the same time, capable of descriptions. Davidson's view is that the material world is meaningless without mental (and for Davidson, linguistic) descriptions. An event can change because language and thought make meanings from events.

I'm not sure that Leithart would approve of the consequence of such a view. He probably (although not necessarily) thinks that human beings are ontologically more than a physical body with supervenient mental properties.

There is another problem with events changing over time. Let us say that as time goes by properties, at least from our perspective, appear to be added to an event. There is a minimal condition for the change: the change takes place to an event when at least one person knows an additional property of an event. So, take our gruesome example: Tom poisoning Jim. What if only Karen knows that Tom poisoned Jim so that when Jim dies Karen is the only one who knows that Tom killed Jim. Karen knowing all this is sufficient for the event to have changed.

The analogy between event and text relies on the same principle. Not everyone has to know the fuller meaning of a text in order for the text to change: as Leithart wants it, the Old Testament's meaning is transformed by the interpretation of the New.

However, and returning to events, if only one person's knowledge of an event is required for the transformation of an event and that person must be the one who has access to the most properties of  the event, then what if a person had maximal access to the properties of an event?

Although we might think there are properties being added and taken away from an event we shouldn't say the same about God. God's omniscience entails that he knows every event, if there is such a thing, and knows it comprehensively or exhaustively. Is there then a changing event. It appears not. At least one person knows the event from all angles and times. And if this is the minimal condition by which an event is said to have changed then it appears an event, in the mind of God, is not changeable since no properties are ever added to an event in the mind of God. We might gain new access to properties, but that doesn't mean the event itself changes.

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