I’m currently researching for a chapter in my thesis on Moltmann’s innovative trinitarian understanding of divine passibility (God, as Trinity, suffers). Kevin Vanhoozer is a contemporary impassibilist whose book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (2010) presents a meaty restatement of the classical theist (and, according to Vanhoozer, necessarily biblical) position on divine impassibility. One of the strengths of the book is Vanhoozer’s attention to words and definitions. He makes sure he defines his terms before using them (here, impassibility and emotion), which is too often left undone in other studies on the subject.
However, I just read Vanhoozer’s discussion of contemporary theory of emotion. He identifies two main theories. The first attributes emotion to bodily functions (“Non-cognitive (physicalist) theories”) and the second to the mind (“Cognitive (mentalist) theories”). Now, my lack of familiarity with the subject here may lead to some embarrassment on my part, but I just don’t get Vanhoozer’s rejection of the first:
“The physicalist view of emotions is not without significant problems, even apart from the issue of God’s corporeality [which camostar will not be addressing either]. First, such theories fail to acknowledge the importance of the influence of one’s beliefs on one’s emotions. It is not simply my seeing a snake that causes me to fear it but my belief that it is poisonous. Second, it is impossible to distinguish between emotions on the basis of physical sensations alone: fear, anger, and love alike may manifest the same physiological symptoms (i.e., rapid breathing). It follows that physical sensations are not themselves what we feel as emotions. Third, it is difficult to appeal to emotions as motives that explain a person’s behaviour if emotions are only bodily sensations. I do not shout at my neighbor because my heart is beating fast but because I am angry about what he did. Finally, while we regularly ascribe moral worth to certain emotions, it is difficult to hold persons praiseworthy or blameworthy for their sweaty armpits” (406-407).
Again, don’t treat me as an authority here, but I don’t see how these can be objections to a physicalist understanding of emotions:
- Why does Vanhoozer imply beliefs are non-physical? Obviously they arise in accordance with the environments that individuals develop within but this does not rule out the physicality of either those environments or the “cognitive” constructions that the individual develops. (By environment here neither do I make a distinction between nature and nurture. The environment is the individual and the individual is the environment. The distinction is nominal). Surely whatever beliefs are made up of that we identify as “cognitive,” for example memories, are a result of physical (at least if I’m reading this not as a Christian)* responses to the environment.
- Similarly, just because physical sensations are “smaller,” that is, occurring in the “mind” rather than the “body” like rapid breathing, the example Vanhoozer uses, they should not therefore be excluded from being physical sensations. Yes there is overlap between different emotions but to say that we can’t distinguish them physically is (a) to claim that the differences between them are unaccountable for physically, as if in the brain, too, the exact same thing is going on in both love and anger; and (b) comes close to the assumption that emotions are set categories anyway, whereas they developed pre/historically as organisms responded to their environments and, the same thing but accounted for in more recent terms, as human societies developed different socio-cultural contexts in which to be emotional. What if some emotions that used to be distinct are now “physiologically indistinguishable” and vice versa?
- Based on these first two objections to objections it should be clear now that shouting at a neighbour in anger can be accounted for in physicalist terms. It is a physical response as much as the heart beating is.
- Vanhoozer here shifts the argument. But just because we have socialised predispositions towards particular emotions, we cannot therefore make a theory of emotion conform to our ethics systems.
It looks like I’ve come down rather hard on Vanhoozer. That’s why I’ve titled this post as a question. The objections I have raised seem patent to me but I feel like I’m missing something of the complexity of the argument because of my unfamiliarity with the literature. It has otherwise been a very illuminating read so far!
*While not addressing questions of divine and human agency, my developing “Christian” understanding of physicalism accepts the classical theist “infinite qualitative distinction” (Kierkegaard) between God and the world. Through creation, God gives life to everyone and everything by the Holy Spirit, who in a very limited sense indwells them and guides them. In new creation, believers receive the Holy Spirit “properly,” in the same way Jesus received the Spirit, but for us as a deposit ahead of the resurrection. Included in Jesus’ divine sonship, we can live a life apart from the “physical,” though, in biblical terms, the world of sin and death, and instead live a life towards the new creation that God has brought in Jesus and will bring in Jesus.