The following quotation from Spinoza may serve as a sort of addendum to what I just posted anent Sam Harris and the idea of divine revelation.
Benedict de Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, Ch. XIV, Dover, 1951, tr. Elwes, p. 182:
. . . a person who accepted promiscuously everything in Scripture as being the universal and absolute teaching of God, without accurately defining what was adapted to the popular intelligence, would find it impossible to escape confounding the opinions of the masses with the Divine doctrines, praising the judgments and comments of man as the teaching of God, and making a wrong use of Scriptural authority. Who, I say, does not perceive that this is the chief reason why so many sectaries teach contradictory opinions as Divine documents, and support their contentions with numerous Scriptural texts, till it has passed in Belgium into a proverb, geen ketter sonder letter -- no heretic without a text?
Eminently incorporable in a post contra fundamentalism.
Sam Harris is a liberal I respect and admire. He has not succumbed to the PeeCee delusion and he actively combats it. Although Harris is a contemporary, he is not a 'contemporary liberal' as I use that phrase: he is a classical or old-time or paleo or respectable liberal. But on religion and some philosophical topics he is out beyond his depth.
And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. The idea that any book was inspired by the creator of the universe is poison—intellectually, ethically, and politically. And nowhere is this poison currently doing more harm than in Muslim communities, East and West. Despite all the obvious barbarism in the Old Testament, and the dangerous eschatology of the New, it is relatively easy for Jews and Christians to divorce religion from politics and secular ethics. A single line in Matthew—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”—largely accounts for why the West isn’t still hostage to theocracy. The Koran contains a few lines that could be equally potent—for instance, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—but these sparks of tolerance are easily snuffed out.
Why does Harris think that the idea of divine (scriptural) revelation is intellectual, ethical, and political poison? Perhaps his reasoning is along the following lines.
1. In every extant scripture there are morally offensive prescriptions and proscriptions which, if followed, would be detrimental to human flourishing, and in that sense 'poisonous.' 2. If one believes that a given scripture is the Word of God, then one believes that everything in that scripture carries divine sanction (approbation): it proceeds from the ultimate moral authority in the universe. 3. If one believes that everything in a given scripture carries divine sanction, then one believes that one has an obligation to commit some morally offensive actions, namely, those enjoined in the scripture in question, actions detrimental to human flourishing. (from 1+ 2) 4. Actions detrimental to human flourishing are 'poison.' Therefore 5. The idea of divine revelation, if accepted, is 'poison.' (from 3 + 4)
I have just imputed to Harris an argument the reasoning of which is correct. Please recall the Logic 101 distinction between correctness/incorrectness of reasoning and truth/falsity of premises and conclusions. (If this argument, or something very similar, is not the argument at the back of Harris's assertion, then I have no idea what that argument would be).
But no defender of divine revelation need be troubled by the above argument. For such a defender may simply deny premise # 2. If a given scripture is the inspired Word of God, that doesn't change the fact that it is written down by men -- and we know what they are like: fallible, sometimes foolish, liable to embellish and distort, biased, limited in ever so many ways.
To put it very simply, I can accept a scripture as divinely inspired while rejecting parts of it as merely human accretions. Why not? There are things that St. Paul says, for example, that are pretty obviously nothing but reflections of his own personal preferences and biases, or else those of his time and place.
Notice that Harris is attacking the very idea of divine revelation: the acceptance of that idea is 'poison.' But he has given us no good reason to accept this wild claim. Of course, if there is no God, then there cannot be divine revelation. But the existence of God is not at issue here. The above argument is logically independent of the existence/nonexistence of God. Indeed, a theist could deploy the above argument.
And the issue is not whether particular portions of some scripture are credible or not. The issue concerns divine revelation as such and in general.
Harris may be assuming that anyone who accepts scriptural revelation must be a fundamentalist in the sense of someone who believes that everything in the Christian Bible, say, wears its meaning on its 'sleeve' and is literally true. But obviously, not everyone who accepts scriptural revelation need be a fundamentalist!
So much for the second of the two bolded sentences above.
The first sentence reads: But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. This sentence encapsulates an inference which, unfortunately for Harris, is a non sequitur. If one respects the idea of divine scriptural revelation, how is it supposed to follow that one is vulnerable to literalism? It obvously doesn't follow. And what exactly is literalism?
Harris ought to read Augustine on the interpretation of Genesis. Here is a sampler of some of the issues that arise.
As I said, Harris is way out of his depth when he enters these theological waters.
A human life is too short for the acquisition by oneself of the wisdom needed to live it well -- or to end it well. And the same goes for the appropriation of the hard-won wisdom of one's predecessors: the brevity of life militates against the needed appropriation as much as against the needed acquisition. So wisdom must come from outside the human-all-too-human if it is to come at all.
Addendum . Dave Bagwill submits the following pertinent quotation from George MacDonald's Diary of an Old Soul for July 15th:
Who sets himself not sternly to be good,
Is but a fool, who judgment of true things
Has none, however oft the claim renewed.
And he who thinks, in his great plenitude,
To right himself, and set his spirit free,
Without the might of higher communings,
Is foolish also--save he willed himself to be.
1. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (defend and rationally justify) an antecedently held thesis or worldview whose source is extraphilosophical
2. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (by generating) a thesis or worldview that is not antecedently held but arrived at by philosophical inquiry.
But we need to nuance this a bit inasmuch as (1) conflates the distinction between
1a. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (defend and rationally justify) an antecedently held thesis or worldview whose source is extraphilosophical, a thesis or worldview that will continue to be maintained whether or not the defensive and justificatory operations are successful
1b. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (defend and rationally justify) an antecedently held thesis or worldview whose source is extraphilosophical, a thesis or worldview that will continue to be maintained only if the defensive and justificatory operations are successful.
Alvin Plantinga may serve as an example of (1a). I think it is fair to say that his commitment to his Dutch Reformed Christian worldview is such that he would continue to adhere to it whether or not his technical philosophical work is judged successful in defending and rationally justifying it. For a classical example of (1a), we may turn to Thomas Aquinas. His commitment to the doctrine of the Incarnation does not depend on the success of his attempt at showing the doctrine to be rationally acceptable. (Don't confuse rational acceptability with rational provability. The Incarnation cannot of course be rationally demonstrated.) Had his amanuensis Reginald convinced him that his defensive strategy in terms of reduplicatives was a non-starter, Thomas would not have suspended his acceptance of the doctrine in question; he would have looked for a defense immune to objections.
There are of course atheists and materialists who also exemplify (1a). Suppose a typical materialist about the mind proffers a theory that attempts to account for qualia and intentionality in purely naturalistic terms, and I succeed in showing him that his theory is untenable. Will he then reject his materialism about the mind or suspend judgment with respect to it? Of course not. He will 'go back to the drawing board' and try to develop a naturalistic theory immune to my objections.
The same thing goes on in the sciences. There are climate scientists who are committed to the thesis that anthropogenic global warming is taking place. They then look for evidence to buttress this conviction.
According to Susan Haack, following C. S. Peirce, the four examples above (which are mine, not hers) are examples of pseudo-inquiry:
The distinguishing feature of genuine inquiry is that what the inquirer wants is to find the truth of some question. [. . .] The distinguishing feature of pseudo-inquiry is that what the 'inquirer' wants is not to discover the truth of some question but to make a case for some proposition determined in advance. (Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 8)
Haack, again following Peirce, distinguishes within pseudo-inquiry sham inquiry and sham reasoning from fake inquiry and fake reasoning. You engage in sham reasoning when you make "a case for the truth of some proposition your commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof." (8) Characteristic of the sham 'inquirer' is a "prior and unbudgeable commitment to the proposition for which he tries to make a case." (9)
There are also those who are indifferent to the truth-value of the thesis they urge, but argue for it anyway to make a name for themselves and advance their careers. Their reasoning is not sham but fake. The sham reasoner is committed to the truth of the thesis he urges; the fake reasoner isn't: he is a bullshitter in Harry Frankfurt's sense. I will not be concerned with fake inquiry in this post.
The question I need to decide is, first of all, whether every case of (1a) is sham inquiry. And the answer to that is No. That consciousness exists, for example, is something I know to be true, and indeed from an extraphilosophical source, namely, introspection or inner sense. Those who claim that consciousness is an illusion are frightfully mistaken. I would be within my epistemic rights in simply dismissing their absurd claim as a bit of sophistry. But suppose I give an argument why consciousness cannot be an illusion. Such an argument would not count as sham reasoning despite my mind's being made up before I start my arguing, despite my "prior and unbudgeable commitment to the proposition" for which I argue.
Nothing is more evident that that consciousness, in my own case at least, exists. Consider a somewhat different case, that of other minds, other consciousnesses. Other minds are not given in the way my own mind is given (to me). Yet when I converse with a fellow human being, and succeed in communicating with him more or less satisfactorily, I am unshakably convinced that I am in the presence of an other mind: I KNOW that my interlocutor is an other mind. And in the case of my cats, despite the fact that our communication does not rise to a very high level, I am unbudgingly convinced that they too are subjects of consciousness, other minds. As a philosopher I want to know how it is that I have knowledge of other minds; I seek a justification of my belief in them. Whether I come up with a decent justification or not, I hold fast to my belief. I want to know how knowledge of other minds is possible, but I would never take my inability to demonstrate possibility as entailing that the knowledge in question is not actual. The reasoning I engage in is genuine, not sham, despite the fact that there is no way I am going to abandon my conviction.
Suppose an eliminative materialist claims that there are no beliefs or desires. I might simply dismiss his foolish assertion or I might argue against it. If I do the latter, my reasoning is surely not sham despite my prior and unbudgeable commitment to my thesis.
Suppose David Lewis comes along and asserts that unrealized possibilities are physical objects. I know that that is false. Suppose a student doesn't see right off the bat that the claim is false and demands an argument. I supply one. Is my reasoning sham because there is no chance that I will change my view? I don't think so.
Suppose someone denies the law of noncontradiction . . . .
There is no need to multiply examples: not every case of (1a) is sham inquiry. Those who claim that consciousness is an illusion or that there are no beliefs and desires can, and perhaps ought to be, simply dismissed as sophists or bullshitters. "Never argue with a sophist!" is a good maxim. But deniers of God, the soul, the divinity of Christ, and the like cannot be simply dismissed as sophists or bullshitters.
So now we come to the hard cases, the interesting cases.
Consider the unshakable belief held by some that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Exerience, p. 53) Some of those who have this belief claim to have glimpsed the unseen order via mystical experience. They claim that it lies beyond the senses, outer and inner, and that is also lies beyond what discursive reason can grasp. And yet they reason about it, not to prove its existence, but to show how it, though suprarational, is yet rationally acceptable. Is their reasoning sham because they will hold to their conviction whether or not they succeed in showing that the conviction is rationally acceptable?
I don't think so. Seeing is believing, and mystical experience is a kind of seeing. Why trust abstract reasoning over direct experience? If you found a way out of Plato's Cave, then you know there is a way out, and all the abstract reasoning of all the benighted troglodytes counts for nothing at all in the teeth of that experience of liberation. But rather than pursue a discussion of mystical experience, let's think about (propositional) revelation.
Consider Aquinas again. There are things he thinks he can rationally demonstrate such as the existence of God. And there are things such as the Incarnation he thinks cannot be rationally demonstrated, but can be known to be true on the basis of revelation as mediated by the church's teaching authority. But while not provable (rationally demonstrable), the Incarnation is rationally acceptable. Or so Thomas argues. Is either sort of reasoning sham given that Aquinas would not abandon belief in God or in the Incarnation even if his reasoning in either case was shown to be faulty? Russell would say yes:
There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. (Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, Simon and Schuster, p. 463)
It is easy to see that Haack is a sort of philosophical granddaughter of Russell at least on this point.
In correspondence Dennis Monokroussos points out that "Anthony Kenny had a nice quip in reply to the Russell quotation. On page 2 of his edited work, Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays (London, 1969) (cited in Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 19), he says that the remark “comes oddly from a philosopher who took three hundred and sixty dense pages to offer a proof that 1 + 1 = 2.”
Exactly right. This is yet another proof that not every instance of (1a) above is an instance of sham reasoning or sham inquiry.
It is certainly false to say that, in general, it is unphilosophical or special pleading or an abuse of reason to seek arguments for a proposition antecedently accepted, a proposition the continuing acceptance of which does not depend on whether or not good arguments for it can be produced. But if we are to be charitable to Lord Russell we should read his assertion as restricted to propositions, theological and otherwise, that are manifestly controversial. So restricted, Russell's asseveration cannot be easily counterexampled, which is not to say that it is obviously true.
Thus I cannot simply cite the Incarnation doctrine and announce that we know this from revelation and are justified in accepting it whether or not we are able to show that it is rationally acceptable. For if it really is logically impossible then it cannot be true. If you say that it is actually true, hence possibly true whether or not we can explain how it is possible for it to be true, then you beg the question by assuming that it is actually true despite the opponent's arguments that it is logically contradictory.
It looks to be a stand-off.
One can imagine a Thomist giving the following speech.
My reasoning in defense of the Incarnation and other such doctrines as the Trinity is not sham despite the fact that I am irrevocably committed to these doctrines. It is a question of faith seeking understanding. I am trying to understand what I accept as true, analogously as Russell tried to understand in terms of logic and set theory what he accepted as true in mathematics. I am not trying to decide whether what I accept is true since I know it it to be true via an extraphilosophical source of knowledge. I am trying to understand how it could be true. I am trying to integrate faith with reason in a manner analogous to the way Russell sought to integrate arithmetic and logic. One can reason to find out new truths, but one can also reason, and reason legitimately, to penetrate intellectually truths one already possesses, truths the ongoing acceptance of which does not depend on one's penetrating them intellectually.
What then does the Russell-Haack objection amount to? It appears to amount to a rejection of certain extraphilosophical sources of knowledge/truth such as mystical experience, authority, and revelation. I have shown that Russell and his epigones cannot reject every extraphilosophical source of knowledge, else they would have to reject inner and outer sense. Can they prove that there cannot be any such thing as divine revelation? And if they cannot prove that, then their rejection of the possibility is arbitrary. If they say that any putative divine revelation has to validate itself by our lights, in our terms, to our logic, then that is just to reject divine revelation.
It looks to be a stand-off, then. Russell and his epigones are within their rights to remain within the sphere of immanence and not admit as true or real anything that cannot be certified or validated within that sphere by the satisfaction of the criteria human reason imposes. And their opponents are free to make the opposite decision: to open themselves to a source of insight ab extra.
He doesn't need to. We need to. But our neediness goes together with our inability to make any progress at it. A double defect: need and inability. The truth we need we cannot acquire by our own efforts. It is this fact that motivates some philosophers to consider the possibility of divine revelation. They can raise the question of revelation without quitting Athens. See Blondel.
Richard Swinburne, Revelation, Oxford, 1992, pp. 102-103:
. . . there has been a strain in Protestantism, with its immense reverence for Scripture, to write of Holy Scripture itself as the original [propositional] revelation; what was given by God was the Bible. But that surely fits very badly with other things that those same Protestants wish to say: for example that there were Christians in the first four centuries AD. For the books of the New Testament were not written down until from twenty to seventy years after Christ taught on Earth, and were only put together and recognized as a New Testament in final form in the fourth century AD. If the books themselves were the revelation, how could there be Chrsitians when there were no books? [Footnote 6 not reproduced: it quotes Iraneus and Papias as quoted by Eusebius.] Holy Scripture must be regarded by Protestants as it is by Catholics, as no more than a true record of a revelation which existed before it.
My last post drew a number of e-mail responses. Here is one, by Joshua Orsak. Subheadings added. The ComBox is open in case Professor Anderson, or anyone, cares to respond.
First I'd like to make a quick note on purgatory. Purgatory is found in the Apocrypha, the 10 or so books of the Bible found in the Septuagint, the Hellenized Jews' Scriptures and not in the Hebrew Scriptures. You find it in Tobit 12:9, 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 and Ecclesiasticus 3:30. Protestants don't accept these scriptures as divinely inspired, but the Catholic faiths (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic, etc) do. I don't want to expound TOO much on arguments for including the Apocrypha, but I want to say this. The Jews did not canonize their scriptures until around 90 AD. They did this, in part, because the Septuagint, in particular the books we call the Apocrypha, were being used against them by the Christians in debates over Jesus' place as messiah. Ironically, Protestants later excluded the books because they are not included in the Jewish' canon. Anderson's point about purgatory is confused. The issue is not whether purgatory is found in the Bible but which scriptures should be included in the Bible at all.
BV: Perhaps the point could be put like this: The question whether purgatory is to be found in the Bible is not a well-defined question, and is therefore unanswerable, until we decide which books are canonical. "You tell me which books make up the Bible, and I will tell whether there is Biblical support for a doctrine of purgatory."
As to whether the Bible supports plenary inerrancy, in my opinion it does not do this consistently. The Bible is a collection of books that take a variety of positions on various theological issues. They are more like conversations around the Revelation of God to the Israelite people (and later the church) than the Revelation itself. The Bible is not the Revelation, but the record of The Revelation. Just to give an example, Jeremiah 28:7-9 modifies the conditions by which we test whether a prophet is genuine from an earlier set of conditions laid down in Deuteronomy 18:21-22. In the latter case we are told that a prophet is only a true prophet if his prophecy comes true. Jeremiah says that this is true only in the case of a prophet that prophecies peace. If a prophet gives you an oracle that you like, that is in line with what you want to hear, then his prophecy must come true or he was a false prophet. But Jeremiah insists that any prophet that challenges you or gives you a word of judgment, i.e., tells you what you do not want to hear, is a true prophet regardless of whether his prophecy comes true.
In the New Testament, the writers often quote passages out of context, and take them to mean something different than the original writers thought they meant. They take prophecies about the return from Babylon to Israel under Persian rule and talk about them as if they are messianic. This is not lying, from the writers' perspective. At the time the New Testament was written, it was believed that the truths behind scripture were hidden even to the original writers, and one needed the Spirit to guide one to dig into the hidden meaning behind the text. It is the Holy Spirit, and not scripture, that is primary in the New Testament, and it is guidance by the Spirit (rather than, say, the Pope) that gives credence to one's understanding of scripture. Jesus does this all the time in Matthew. He quotes scripture "you have heard it said" and then replaces or modifies it "but I say unto you...". Jesus has the authority to 'bind and loose' the law (to bind the law is to make it more strict, to loose it is to make it less strict, this was the pharisees' understanding of what a teacher was supposed to do). This authority derives from the Spirit. Just to give one example, think about Matthew 9:1-12. Jesus says that the allowance of divorce, found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 did not derive from God but from Moses, clearly implying that not all of scripture comes from God alone. Jesus then goes to a rather ambiguous passage from Genesis to clarify what our attitude towards divorce should be.
The Danger of Bibliolatry
This is just the beginning of a sketch of a Biblical argument, but I'd say you are on firm BIBLICAL ground when you reject plenary inerrancy. There are certain passages that do seem to support that doctrine, but there are many, many more passages that indicate a vastly different way of approaching scripture. God should be the center of our theology, not a book. Experience and reason have to play a role. The Bible is not a constitution that restricts our limits our relationship with the Divine, it is rather a long and storied history of one people's (or two peoples') relationship with God and how God revealed Himself to them over an extended period of time. It includes their reflections on that revelation. It has a lot to say to us, and gives form and function to our own experience. Without it, we'd be starting pretty much from scratch. I love the Bible and it plays a central role in my relationship with God. But if it becomes the end-all be-all it becomes idolatrous in its own right. Bibliolatry is a subtle but I think very dangerous form of that terrible sin.
C. Scripture is a product of divine-human interaction. It exists contingently and does convey divine revelation. But it is not inerrant. It contains errors and defects that reflect the fact that it is a product of divine-human interaction. God may be an impeccable transmitter, but we are surely not impeccable receivers. There will be plenty of human 'noise' mixed in with the divine 'signal.' God is not the author of the Bible, various human beings are the authors, but some of these at some times are writing under inspiration and thus are drawing truths from a transcendent source. Although the Book contains divine revelation, it is not the Last Word. Nor is it impossible that divine revelation is to be found in such writings as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Dhammapada, not to mention 'inspired' philosophers such as Plato and Plotinus.
I really enjoyed your recent post on various ways to approach revelation. I, too, opt for something like option C. It is similar to Karl Barth's position: that the Bible is NOT the revelation of God, but a record of God's revelation to mankind. I find that shift to be vital. Many Christians engage in a kind of biblolatry, they seek to have a relationship with a book. I don't want to have a relationship with a book, I want to have a relationship with God. I am a minister, I love the Bible, I study it every day and I find it to be an important part OF my relationship with God, but it is NOT the sum total of that relationship.
Let me see if I understand the shift. You seem to be distinguishing between the (human) record of God's revelation of certain truths to man and God's revelation of these truths. That is a good distinction and I accept it. You may also be distinguishing between God's revelation of certain truths to mankind and God's revelation of himself. It could be that God reveals little or nothing about himself while revealing certain truths to mankind. (In the same way that an anonymous caller to the police could reveal the whereabouts of a bank robber without revealing anything about himself.) The phrase 'revelation of God' can be interpreted as either an objective or a subjective genitive. Thus one could deny that the Bible is the revelation of God (objective genitive) while maintaining that the Bible is the revelation of God (subjective genitive). Putting the two distinctions together, I interpret you to be saying that the Bible is the human record of the revelation by God to mankind of certain truths. If that is what you mean, then I agree. This allows us to rule out two notions that ought to be ruled out, namely, scriptural inerrancy and the notion that the Biblical revelation is final. Once we admit that the Bible is a human product, though not merely a human product, we will give up preposterous claims to inerrancy. And if we grant that God does not primarily reveal himself in the Bible, then we will have much less reason to think that there cannot be any further divine-to-human communications.
I think that 'finding God' within scripture takes place because we have access to revelation that is outside scripture. We find some passage, some moment that 'links up' to an experience we have in our own lives, and we say 'yes, this matches, this fits'. It is because the Bible deepens and enlightens my own encounter with God's revelation that it has the weight it does with me. Peter Berger talks about a 'nexus' forming between our own experiences and scripture.
So thank you for your thoughts on this matter. I think they are spot on. Peace and Blessings.
Suppose you are a theist (classically defined) and are also open to the possibility of divine revelation. Suppose further that you are open to the possibility of a written revelation. Call the scripture of a religion its 'Book.' The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sometimes called 'religions of the Book,' each have their Book. Let's not worry about overlap, or translation, or influence, or sectarian squabbles over the canonicity or otherwise of certain writings. Let's think like philosophers in terms of big broad possibilities of interpretation. A philosopher worth his salt goes for the big picture. He is out to reconnoitre the conceptual landscape, not get lost in details. Off the top of my head, there are four main possible slants on scripture. These interpretations can be arranged on a spectrum from the radically transcendent to the utterly immanent.*
The question I want to pose and to which I do not have a firm answer — Nescio ergo blogo! — is whether every case of divine revelation is a miraculous event, or whether there are or can be cases of divine revelation that are not miraculous. To treat this question properly we need some preliminary definitions of key terms. After proposing some definitions I will suggest that they point in the direction of the possibility of non-miraculous revelations.