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Monday, February 22, 2010

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I do not think it's balanced to liken the doctrine of the trinity to a master demanding blind obedience from his slave. A teacher, even a very good teacher, is not going to teach his student everything he wants to know (some things are not important to the lesson) or teach it on the schedule the student wants.

That said, while the words are stirring, I'm not about to dictate to God on what terms I will accept Him. Others' mileage may vary.

Well, certainly he is not likening the doctrine of the Trinity to a master. He is opposing a certain conception of God as a tyrant or master with us as slaves.

"I'm not about to dictate to God on what terms I will accept Him." Well said, inasmuch as it gets at one aspect of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem. If God exists, then we as creatures are in no position to do any dictating. But on the other hand, a God who demands the crucifixion of the intellect, the erasure of our most noble -- and indeed godlike attributes -- cannot be a God we can accept. After all, God is supposed to be our ultimate good, a being in relation to whom alone we can achieve our ultimate beatitude. But if this God demands subservience and the sacrifice of the intellect, if it demands belief in what to our minds appear as absurdities, then how can our good consist in a relation with such a being?

This, I believe, is what Peter is driving at.

To the extent that people choose what religion, or sect or denomination they believe in, they do dictate to God on what(broad)terms they will accept Him. I imagine Joseph would reject or question a religion or version of Christianity that is contrary to his basic moral(epistemological, metaphysical?)sensibilities, just as Peter is.

And if people don't choose their religion/sect, and are merely encultured into the belief, then the basis of their belief is merely geography, and arbitrary.

Thanks again to Peter for his stimulating analysis.

I hope this won't appear lazy or evasive, but I'm simply going to refer Peter (and other interested readers) to my book, in which I address the sort of epistemological issues he raises. In chapter 5, I offer a defense and extension of Plantinga's epistemology of Christian beliefs, according to which the component claims of central Christian doctrines (such as the Trinity) can be strongly warranted based on biblical revelation. In chapter 6, I argue that if this epistemology is granted along with the Christian doctrines of analogy and divine incomprehensibility, then the recognition that certain Christian doctrines are paradoxical need not function as an epistemic defeater for belief in those doctrines. In chapter 7, I address the objection that the paradoxicality of Christian doctrines is a defeater for the claim that the Bible (understood as the source of those doctrines) is a divine revelation.

In other words, I say a lot in the book than in the 2005 article (which inevitably left many important questions unaddressed). Obviously I can't reproduce all that material here, and I'm reluctant to summarize because simplified arguments often end up looking like simplistic arguments. But readers of the book can judge for themselves to what extent Peter's objections have traction.

Bill is quite right, though, that Peter's Modus Ponens is my Modus Tollens. It should be understood that my project is a defensive one; specifically, it aims to deflect the objection that if the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation appear to be inconsistent then it can't be rational for Christians to believe them. I'm not attempting to show that the doctrines are true or epistemically warranted; certainly I'm not attempting to make a case for those doctrines that will persuade an atheist like Peter (especially an atheist with preferences like those expressed in Part III above).

The argument of the second half of the book, in a nutshell, is that if Christian theism (broadly understood) is actually the case, and if the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation as taught in the Bible are paradoxical, then the model I propose for understanding those doctrines (or something close) is most likely true -- in which case, Christians who believe those doctrines are normally rational to do so. One consequence of this is that the objections Peter raises above beg the question against the Christian Mysterian.

Finally, a comment on one of Bill's interpolated comments. Yes, I do indeed believe that everything in the Bible is divinely revealed, including the Old Testament. This shouldn't be so surprising; it's the traditional Christian view. Indeed, it was the view of Jesus himself (Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 16:17; John 10:35; go here for a more detailed argument). I figure what's good enough for Jesus is good enough for me. After all, if anyone would know, he would. :)

I'm a little surprised that Bill would endorse the old wrong-value-of-Pi argument against this view. An approximation isn't a falsehood. If it were, every written value of Pi (or measurements implied to be in that ratio) would be false, whether in the Bible or not. Suffice it to say that there are several plausible explanations for the measurements recorded in 1 Kings 7:23 (some of which are listed here).

A discussion of whether or not the Old Testament is divinely inspired would take us far afield from the topic at hand, and needlessly so. I'm willing to defend the inerrancy of Scripture, but doing so requires a certain amount of common ground about the nature of God, the teachings of Christ, the basic reliability of the New Testament, and so forth. And in any case, the epistemology of Christian beliefs I defend in the book doesn't require a full-blown doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Bill,

First, I'm not certain our intellect/knowledge - for all the value of it, for all the value even the Catholic church (my church) places in reason, for all the good it does and is - is necessarily our most noble, much less most godlike attribute. What about love? What about sheer desire for the good? I'm only saying here that I'm not so sure intellect (particularly, knowledge) is quite the trait in relation to God you make it to be. It faintly, very faintly, echoes a claim that the knowledge of good and evil is so valuable that no proper God would ever forbid us it at any time.

Second, I do not see how an acceptance of the trinity - particularly when the trinity is explicitly regarded as a mystery - would be tantamount to "the subservience and the sacrifice of our intellect". Is it because no God would ever keep us in the dark, or impart to us something mysterious to believe in? How is it a sacrifice to affirm something deeply mysterious to us, on (of all types) divine authority? And the suggestion that the doctrine of the trinity would be some kind of tool for God to provide "superficial superiority" over humanity strikes me as very strange. Who is saying this?

But the third issue I'd take with Peter is this: I'm afraid that God's relation to us as master to slave does not seem optional to me. I do not mean that God must be a petty, vain tyrant, or a fierce dictator. But let's keep the relationship in perspective here: God would be omniscient, and omnipotent. Even God as merely 'maximally potent' and 'maximally knowledgeable' puts a gulf so far between God and man that to talk about this being a relationship of 'mentor to student' strikes me as hopeless. Even mormons would likely question it, despite the belief that some humans are destined for full-blown godhood. And this is the being expected to be a "mentor"?

An omniscient, omnipotent mentor is mentor no longer. At most, he is a master who chooses to act in a way superficially similar to a mentor. It's like imagining God as a president, or even a monarch.

Joseph, you wrote:

"First, I'm not certain our intellect/knowledge - for all the value of it, for all the value even the Catholic church (my church) places in reason, for all the good it does and is - is necessarily our most noble, much less most godlike attribute. What about love? What about sheer desire for the good? I'm only saying here that I'm not so sure intellect (particularly, knowledge) is quite the trait in relation to God you make it to be. It faintly, very faintly, echoes a claim that the knowledge of good and evil is so valuable that no proper God would ever forbid us it at any time."

How would we even know God, or think about what is the most noble human attribute, or have a free will to choose between good and evil or to choose to love, without the capacity to know or reason? Isn't it the precondition of them all?

You mention the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, but what about omnibenevolence? How does that feature fit into the master/slave model? Is omnibenevolence consistent with slave-owning?

Biblically, the most accurate analogy would seem to be father/child which incorporates both ultimate authority and mentoring, but I suspect Peter's view is that no good father would treat his children as Yahweh does, or subject them to the evils that are so abundant in this veil of tears.

I hope I am not appearing to crash the conversation, and I look forward to any responses Bill or Peter make, since I am sure they will be more interesting

Professor Anderson,

Thank you for your good-natured reply. Peter and I both want to read your book and we are in the process of securing a copy. It is perfectly understandable that you have no desire (or time) to repeat in simplified form what you have already carefully set forth in your book.


You and I are both assuming that the Trinity and Incarnation doctrines, if true, can be known to be true only by revelation. But you appear to go a step further by assuming that the rational acceptability of the doctrines is also such that it can be known only by revelation. Is that right?

My problem, and it may also be Peter's, is that if I cannot see that a proposition is rationally acceptable (because it appears contradictory to me) then I wouldn't know what proposition I was accepting. After all, one cannot bring oneself to believe what appears to be a contradiction.

More later.

Bill,

Please call me James. In this forum, you're the Professor!

I'm not saying that the rationally acceptability of the doctrines can be known only by revelation. Consider these two beliefs:

B1: The doctrine of the Trinity is paradoxical yet true.
B2: I am rational in believing that the doctrine of the Trinity is paradoxical yet true.

B1 is a first-level belief, B2 a second-level belief. 'Ordinary' Christian believers rarely form second-level beliefs about their first-level beliefs. My main claim is not that revelation is necessary in order for beliefs like B2 to be rationally justified (although that's probably true) but that it is necessary in order for beliefs like B1 to be rationally justified.

In other words, the rational acceptability of the doctrines depends on their actually being epistemically grounded in divine revelation, regardless of whether believers form any second-level beliefs about the rationally acceptability of those doctrines (or their epistemic grounds).

It may help to point out here that in the book I defend an externalist theory of rationality and epistemic warrant. I deny that in order for S's belief B to be warranted, S has to know (or have some internal awareness of) just how B is warranted for S. So I argue that a Christian can have warranted beliefs in the component claims of the doctrine of the Trinity without knowing how those beliefs are warranted, provided certain conditions are met (which I discuss in chapters 5 and 6).

As for the question of what exactly we're expected to believe when we accept the doctrine of the Trinity -- yes, that's one of the trickier questions. I address it in chapter 7, although no doubt I will have to say more at some point. But I'll make a few brief comments here.

In the first place, I don't think we believe a single proposition when we believe the doctrine of the Trinity (which is why talk of "the Trinitarian-proposition" and "the Trinitarian-sentence" can be somewhat misleading). Rather, we believe a number of propositions: to believe in the Trinity is to have a number of beliefs about God. From a psychological standpoint, that's just how our believings generally go. We have many distinct, structurally simple beliefs, rather than a few massively complex conjunctive beliefs.

Furthermore, Trinitarians don't believe anything explicitly contradictory (i.e., both a proposition and its negation). Rather, we have a set of beliefs that, on reflection, appear to involve an implicit contradiction. But we withhold the further belief that these involve a genuine contradiction, and thus withhold certain inferences about our beliefs. So far as I can see, there is nothing psychological impossible or infeasible about this. Nor is it necessarily rationally unacceptable, provided one has sufficient epistemic grounds for maintaining this complex belief state (and showing that there could be sufficient epistemic grounds is the burden of my book, of course).

The doxastic situation of the Mysterian Trinitarian can be compared again to that of our friend the Flatlander, who ends up holding both the belief that the Cone is triangular and the belief that the Cone is circular, and while unable to reconcile these beliefs and resolve the apparent contradiction, he withholds the inference that one or other must be relinquished. I think scientists sometimes find themselves in an analogous situation, as when they believe that light is simultaneously particular and undular, or they believe that quantum mechanics and special relativity are both true. In each case, they tacitly recognize that there is some unarticulated equivocation or imprecision involved, even though they're presently unable to specify and conceptualize that equivocation/imprecision.

Sorry about the typos: "rationally acceptability" (twice) should be "rational acceptability", and "psychological impossible" should be "psychologically impossible".

T. Hanson,

"How would we even know God, or think about what is the most noble human attribute, or have a free will to choose between good and evil or to choose to love, without the capacity to know or reason? Isn't it the precondition of them all?"

Even if it were, it would not be a precondition that makes knowledge the most important and godlike trait, anymore than simple existence or/of agency (being a precondition of knowledge) would automatically make that the 'better' trait over knowledge.

"You mention the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, but what about omnibenevolence? How does that feature fit into the master/slave model? Is omnibenevolence consistent with slave-owning?"

I may not have communicated myself clearly on this point. But go ahead, take on omnibenevolence as a divine attribute. You're still left with a being who is, in addition to omnibenevolence, omniscient and omnipotent. And this is the being who stands in relation to us, we of the radically limited potency and knowledge, not to mention benevolence. And someone can hope that this relationship won't be one where the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being is master, at least in some way?

I only just now noticed your previous reply, so forgive this out-of-order response. But, without getting into the greater details of my thoughts on morality and God, I will say this: I avoid the game where the only God(s) I consider even possible is the God(s) I happen to approve of. Or where I can know with certainty what God would do or value (and how much He would value it in relation to other values) such that if I were wrong about these values, I'd conclude God did not exist.

James writes, "the rational acceptability of the doctrines depends on their actually being epistemically grounded in divine revelation . . ."

This suggests that we have a different understanding of 'rational acceptability' which in turn may reflect the difference between internalism and externalism. If you could show me that there is no contradiction in the Incarnation doctrine -- by drawing certain distinctions -- then I would say that the doctrine is rationally acceptable even if in fact there is no God and no revelation.

The rational acceptability of there being a gold deposit in some mountain range does not depend on the actual existence of the deposit; what it depends on is whether logic or the laws of nature or certain known facts about the geology of the mountain range rules out there being a gold deposit there.

So I guess that makes me an internalist.

You say that there is nothing psychologically impossible about withholding certain inferences about our beliefs, inferences which, if carried out, would issue in an explicit contradiction. That is true. But if I withhold the inferences to avoid facing a contradiction, then it seems I am deceiving myself.

I grant you that if I have good grounds for believing both limbs of an apparaent contradiction, then I have good grounds for thinking that the apparent contradiction is merely apparent. (You make roughly this point against Tuggy in your excellent article.) And so I seem entitled to suppose that there is a point of view from which the apparent contradiction will be resolved. Thus when the Flatlander gets to 3D heaven and sees cones for the first time, then he grasps how circles and triangles can coexist.

But the problem for me and Peter is the identity of the Trinitarian proposition that will resolve the apparent contradictoriness of the Trinitarian propositions that we have before our minds here below. Which proposition is that? You cannot specify it. You can only gesture toward it in a general sort of way. How can I accept a proposition that I cannot get before my mind in proprie persona? How can I be required to believe something I know not what?

How can I believe a proposition the identity of which is unknown to me?

Joseph,

I thought we were talking about traits or properties and existence is not a property that anything has (property of what?). Also, agency is not a precondition or necessary property of knowledge or reason since I can reason without being an agent. Rather I would argue the capacity to reason is a necessary feature of being an agent. Since reasoning is necessary to all the other virtues (nod to Aristotle) - what else is? - it seems like it should be afforded very special status.

What is most godlike is another question. A virtue that is noble or important or most important for humans may not be godlike. Courage, hope, temperance, and faith might be very important virtues for humans but not godlike since God does not possess them for obvious reasons. What does He fear that He needs to be courageous?

I am not sure I understand your last sentence. My claim was that reflective, intelligent people choose versions of religion that broadly conform to their moral sensitivities, and in that sense they dictate to God what is right and wrong. I am not sure how concluding God does not exist fits into this.

T. Hanson,

I'll skip the greater side-debates of whether existence is a property, or even whether something other than an actual agent can reason. It's enough for me to simply question whether reason is our most noble or godlike attribute, even if it were the one that had the broadest application with regards to human virtue.

I think there is a big difference between making choices about religion that are informed by moral sensitivities, and dictating to God what is right or wrong. The "sense" someone would be dictating merely by actually having moral sensitivities is uninteresting - it's when that additional step is taken, such that we start talking about "If God existed, He would act like this or that, or value this or that" that I start getting skeptical, especially given the problems of that "master" issue. And I think it's obvious how that leads into 'Either God does this specific act or values this or acts like this, or He doesn't exist'.

Bill,

Yes, I was assuming a different understanding of 'rational acceptability', but your clarification is helpful. I was understanding 'rational acceptability' as roughly synonymous with 'rational justification'. If I read you rightly, you take some claim (or set of claims) C to be rationally acceptable just in case you can see that C involves no contradiction. ("If you could show me that there is no contradiction...") Is that correct?

Well, if this is a substantive claim about our epistemic duties (and not just a matter of definition) then I disagree, and one of the burdens of my book is to show that there is no good reason to accept it and some good reason to reject it (and not just in theological cases). In chapter 7, I address the objection that it is simply a basic requirement of rationality that we reject all apparent contradictions (even if we grant that some could turn out to be merely apparent, even if we have good grounds for thinking that some are merely apparent).

(As an aside, I don't this particular issue selects between internalist and externalist theories of epistemic warrant, so set aside my remarks on that point.)

What confuses me, then, is that some of your remarks in our earlier exchanges, and even your subsequent remarks above, indicate that you don't take 'rational acceptability' (as defined above) to be a genuine constraint on our beliefs. For you say, "I grant you that if I have good grounds for believing both limbs of an apparent contradiction, then I have good grounds for thinking that the apparent contradiction is merely apparent." But in this scenario, I cannot see that there is no contradiction -- at least, not by direct reflection on the claims in question -- even if I can know (or at least justifiably believe) on other grounds that there is no genuine contradiction.

Your sympathy toward the Flatlander analogy suggests the same. The Flatlander cannot see (prior to 3D heaven) that the conic revelation involves no contradiction, but he can still justifiably believe that the contradiction is merely apparent. The revealed doctrine of the Cone is, in fact, rationally acceptable, in the sense that the Flatlander is not violating any ultima facie epistemic duties (even if, perhaps, he violates one prima facie epistemic duty).

You also write, "But the problem for me and Peter is the identity of the Trinitarian proposition that will resolve the apparent contradictoriness of the Trinitarian propositions that we have before our minds here below."

Here you apparently distinguish between "the Trinitarian proposition" (singular; label this TPS) and "the Trinitarian propositions" (plural; label these TPP).

If I understand your terminology here, the TPS is that proposition which, if grasped, would enable us to see how it is that the apparently contradictory TPP are not really contradictory (presumably by apprising us of some significant metaphysical distinction or refinement). In the case of the Flatlander, the TPS would be equivalent to the proposition that the Cone exists in three spatial dimensions rather than two. But the TPS (or rather its equivalent) cannot be grasped by the Flatlander because of his present conceptual limitations.

You then suggest it's a problem that we cannot specify or grasp the TPS. But why think that's a problem for us, if it's not a problem for the Flatlander? Why think that's a problem if (as you've granted) one can have good grounds for believing that an apparent contradiction is merely apparent, even without knowing how the appearance of contradiction can be removed? Why think that's a problem if one has good grounds for think that there is a true TPS even if one can't say what that TPS is?

James,

Excellent comments. Although I haven't thought about it that hard, I suppose what I mean by rational acceptability is the following. A claim C is rationally acceptable for a person P just in case (i) P discerns no logical contradiction in C after due consideration, and (ii) C is not ruled out by anything P can legitimately claim to know. Thus the existence of God is rationally acceptable for me since I discern no contradiction in the (Fregean) proposition that God exists, and there is nothing that I can legitimately claim to know that rules out the existence of God. (Thus I know that the earth is not the stationary center of the universe, but this fact does not rule out the existence of God.)

Rational acceptability is relative to persons and times, unlike truth which is neither. What is rationally acceptable may or may not be true. For Dalton, it was rationally acceptable that water is HO, but that us neither true nor rationally acceptable for us. The existence of God is rationally acceptable for me even if there is no God, and the nonexistence of God is rationally acceptable for Peter even if there is.

Now is there some strong objection to this approach to rational acceptability?

By acceptability I don't mean able to accepted but something normative: p is rationally acceptable for me iff I can accept p and it is epistemically permissible that I accept p. By 'accept,' I mean affirm or believe or intellectually assent to.

I take it that you are opposed to talk of epistemic permissibility and impermissibility.

Is Plantinga's *Warrant and Proper Function* a prerequisite to understanding your approach? Justification for you is warrant, and warrant is to be explicated in externalist fashion?

James,

You do seem to have put your finger on a problem with something I said. If I have good reason to accept p and good reason to accept ~p, then I have good reason to deem the contradiction merely apparent, even though I cannot see that the contradiction is merely apparent. But this conflicts with saying that a proposition is rationally acceptable only if it is free of apparent contradiction.

I may have been too quick to agree with your point against Tuggy. I will have to think about this some more.

Bill,

Thanks for the further clarification. Sorry for the delay in replying.

My main objection to condition (i) of your rational acceptability is that we can find very plausible cases where a person believes two or more claims that appear to be inconsistent, yet doesn't appear to be irrational in so doing. I give some examples in my article and my book. We've discussed some of these in our exchanges here.

I'm not at all opposed to talk of epistemic permissibility and impermissibility. I agree that there are deontological constraints on our believings, acceptings, etc. But like Plantinga, I don't think epistemic justification (construed along deontological lines) is either necessary or sufficient for epistemic warrant (defined as what distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief) or for the kind of rationality that is necessary for knowledge.

Certainly a familiarity with Plantinga's theory of warrant will be helpful for understanding how I defend the thesis that it can be rational to accept a paradoxical doctrine (i.e., one that gives the appearance of contradiction).

One final comment. The examples I give of the rational acceptance of apparent contradictions don't involve explicit contradictions, i.e., accepting both p and ~p. Rather, they involve accepting a set of claims -- say, p, q, and r -- where those claims seem to involve an implicit contradiction. I think this is a significant difference, both psychologically and epistemically.

Joseph,

I think the fact that people choose to believe in a particular conception of God (a particular religion or denomination) is interesting, since by doing so they are saying that they can or prefer to believe that God has a moral character conforming to their conception of the good, and that they cannot or prefer not to believe that God has a moral character that does not conform to their sense of the good (for example that God commands fathers to assault their sons with deadly weapons or wants homosexuals stoned to death.) So it is people who ultimately judge who or what is good or bad, including God under particular descriptions. It is not a choice between either God has this character or God does not exist. The choice is either a particular description of God includes a moral character that I can buy, or if not, then I cannot believe God exists under that description.

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