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Tuesday, February 09, 2010


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Isn't the above consciousness mysterianism with physicalism taken on faith pretty much Colin McGuinn's written position?

I think that the practice of admitting limitations in human epistemology and admitting the use of faith to keep us going in our chosen direction is not a thing confined to theology. Not that makes it very popular among philosophers; you seem to disdain it here from time to time, for example.


one is skeptical (unlike, say, Edward Feser) to metaphysical arguments against materialism (because, say, being unclear on the concept of matter: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/04/is-god-in-bad-taste-some-anti-searlean-remarks.html?cid=6a010535ce1cf6970c01156f664e0d970c#comment-6a010535ce1cf6970c01156f664e0d970c ),
if pressed, he could try this strategy:

There are good apologetical reasons that the Trinitarian sentences of the Athanasian Creed aptly express some true proposition or other. But there are no good reasons that the materialist sentence express some true proposition or other.

This is better:
It is probable, due to the historical evidence employed by the apologist, that the Trinitarian sentences of the Athanasian Creed aptly express some true proposition or other. But it is not probable that the materialist sentence express some true proposition or other.

To ascertain whether this is true is a matter of detailed arguments. But I see no principled fault in it.


your argument seems sound to me. In my opinion, the orthodox position is not mysterianist, in the sense that it would regard Trinitarianism as appearing irredeemably self-contradictory to us.

On the other hand, I think that it can be rational for a person to accept as true a doctrine which he cannot understand in a consistent way, given that he has better reasons to believe that the doctrine is true than to believe that his analytical capabilities are reliable in this case.

A materialist can theoretically be justified in being materialist, given that he has better reasons to believe the Science than his personal capabylity to resolve contradictions. De facto, however, I don't think that anyone can be rationally justified in believing that the Science teaches us materialism, but one can be rationally justified in believing that God teaches us Trinitarianism.


Yes, Colin McGinn is the main present-day exponent of mysterianism the phil. of mind. I didn't want to get into his particular views, however, since I don't have his latest book.


Whether theological mysterianism is in a better epistemic position than materialist mysterianism is very hard to evaluate. I don't have any good ideas on the topic at the moment.


We agree that a position like yours is not mysterianist. Your position, briefly, is that when the proper distinctions are made, the Trinity doctrine can be seen to be logcally coherent.

And we agree that natural science does not support materialism.

"but one can be rationally justified in believing that God teaches us Trinitarianism." I would be inclined to accept this if it could be shown that Trinitarianism could be explained in a logically coherent way. You believe that it can while I am not so sure.

Bill (if I may),

My response, in very brief, is that appeals to mystery such as these can only be funded by divine revelation, for the sort of reason indicated at the end of my comment here. Put crudely, only God is in a position to correct or overrule the inferences we make from our fallible metaphysical intuitions. It's unlikely that the materialist mysterian could avail himself of such an appeal, because either (a) he rules out divine revelation in principle (if he's a materialist about everything) or (b) if he accepts divine revelation he would still find it a pretty tall order to identify a divine revelation that would warrant such an appeal (contrast the case of the doctrine of the Trinity). For example, as best I can tell, the Bible doesn't offer any support for materialism (in any sense of the word!). Obviously this response raises numerous further questions, such as the proper relationship between human reason and divine revelation, but here I'm simply indicating the line of defense I'd take. In sum, there is a relevant difference between theological mysterianism and materialist mysterianism.

I do think that there is slightly different parity argument to be had here, namely, that if materialist mysterianism can be rationally justified then so can theological mysterianism (cf. Plantinga's parity argument in God and Other Minds).

In essence, I take the view that of the following two propositions, the first is true but the second is false (or at least, not obviously true).

(P1) If materialist mysterianism can be rationally justified, then so can theological mysterianism.

(P2) If theological mysterianism can be rationally justified, then so can materialist mysterianism.

Finally, I'm inclined to reject the final inference in Bill's post. It doesn't seem right to me to say that if some strategy S can be used to defend both P and Q (where P and Q are incompatible) then S can't be effective for defending either P or Q. To see my point, try replacing S with "rational argumentation in general" or "appeals to prephilosophical intuitions" or "appeals to empirical evidence". But perhaps I'm misunderstanding Bill's point.

Hi Bill, I've posted a response over at my blog:


The key words form Edward Feser's reply, hear hear! :-)

The Trinitarian theologian maintains that the Trinitarian propositions (1) – (7) are perfectly consistent when rightly understood, so that if any reading of them seems self-contradictory, then that reading is mistaken, and does not accurately convey what the doctrine says. Hence if the doctrine “appears contradictory” to you, you have by that very fact misunderstood it and are not really entertaining it at all.
This amounts, IMHO, to rejecting "mysterianism" as defined by Dale Tuggy, since it assumes that i) Trinitarianism can be understood (even rightly understood), though not perfectly comprehended, and that ii) rightly understood, it does not appear as self-contradictory.


May I have a question?

Consider the following statements:

I. The Trinity doctrine is consistent.
II. The Trinity doctrine cannot be evidently consistent (at least to humans in this life and without special revelation).
III. The Trinity doctrine cannot be evidently not analytically false (at least to humans in this life and without special revelation).
IV. The Trinity doctrine cannot be evidently true (at least to humans in this life and without special revelation).

It seems to me that you embrace all of them, right?

-- are (II) and (III) standardly maintained by the scholastics?
-- are (II) and (III) maintained by the RC church? If so, could you provide me with some decent references where I could find the teaching?


Yes, I embrace them all. I believe that II. and III. are standardly believed by the Scholastics, but of course there are some exceptions: some are slightly more "mysterian", some more rationalist (like Anselm or Richard of St. Victor). In the later scholasticism (post-Aquinas) the doctrine seems to have reached the ballanced state described below.

According to the Ott dogmatics, the following two are "sententiae fidei proximae", that is, propositions that the theologians regard as revealed but that have never been explicitly declared to be such by the Church:

  • The Trinity of Persons in God can only be known through revelation;
  • Even after the revelation the natural reason remains incapable of comprehending the instrinsic possibility of the doctrine.
These two propositions jointly characterize the doctrine as a "mysterium stricte dictum".

Ott comments:

The reason enlightened by Faith nevertheless has, on the basis of the doctrinal explantations of the Church and of the testiomony of the revelation, the capability to correctly understand and express the true meaning of the dogmata. Furthermore, the reason can further elucidate the mystery and make it more comprehensible by means of analogies taken form the created things, comparing for example the divine processions with human self-knowledge and self-love. The reason can also solve the objections against the dogma. Although the trinitary dogma is above reason, it is not against reason.
V. Šanda, a Czech theologian from the first half of the 20th century, comments:
The Holy Trinity is a "mysterium stricte dictum" (MSD). MSD is that of which the human reason left unto himself can know neither "that it is", nor "what it is" - I mean: a) human reason alone cannot arrive at the knowledge that it exists; and b) even having gained the knowledge of its existence from revelation it cannot comprehend the intrinsic possibility of that thing (that is, whether and why the predicate should be asserted or denied of the subject: "God is both one and three"). A "Mysterium late dictum" is that which cannot be known without revelation "that it is", but after the revelation it is clear "what it is" - for example, that Christ made Peter the primate of the Church.

That the Trinity is a MSD is clear to reason.

a) We gain our knowledge of God from His effects by the triple way of affirmation, negation and intensification. But God's external operation is common to the three persons, God acts externally as though He were just one hypostasis. Therefore in the creation there is nothing that would causally require plurality of hypostases in God. Hence a philosopher unaided by faith assumes one hypostasis in God and cannot arrive at the cognition of the Trinity.

b) Moreover, having arrived at the cognition of the existence of the Trinity, one does not know how and why the divine nature can and must subsist in three hypostases. For our notions of "nature" and "person" are gained from the creatures - but in creatures multiplication of hypostases multiplies the natures as well. There is no specimen within the creation of a nature subsisting in three hypostases. Therefore one does not know what such a tri-personal nature is like in itsef and how it comes that, its unity notwithstanding, it does not exclude but require the plurality of hypostases. The internal possibility of the Trinity is therefore not evident in our concepts. Nevertheless we are forced to apply those concepts to God, because we do not see Him, as He is in Himself, and therefore we cannot grasp the internal possibility of the three persons subsisting in one nature.
But it seems even that it is intrinsically or metaphysically inconsistent that one created nature existed in three hypostases at once. Therefore such a nature cannot be created. Hence it sems that the Trinity cannot be made manifest by menas of its external created effects. Therefore without revelation or vision no created intellect can ever come to know the existence of the Trinity.

The Vatican I (sess. 3 cap. 4) defined that there are revealed MSD that

according to their very nature overreach human intellect to the extent that even when it has received revelation and embraced faith they remain hidden behind the veil of the faith itself and, as it were, wrapped in obscurity, as long as we peregrinate far from God in this mortal life.
Šanda comments:
But the Trinity is one of the foremost mysteries unto all Catholics who concede it. Therefore it certainly is a MSD.
(The translations from German and Latin are mine.)

I've posted a follow-up, though Lukas Novak has largely anticipated what I have to say!



Could you kindly give me a couple of examples of this statement "God's external operation is common to the three persons" from the new testament? For example, is Jesus's crucifixion an example of "God's external operation"?

Ott says "The reason enlightened by Faith nevertheless has, on the basis of the doctrinal explantations of the Church and of the testimony of the revelation, the capability to correctly understand and express the true meaning of the dogmata". Does the 'supposita' doctrine espress the true meaning of the Trinity dogma or what there is to be understood of the Trinity dogma? And did you understand the supposita doctrine with the help of Faith, Church explanations and Revelation?

Ott says "Even after the revelation the natural reason remains incapable of comprehending the instrinsic possibility of the doctrine". You too distinguish between "to comprehend" and "to understand" and somewhere else you say "I understand the sentence “LCD displays are flat”. I know the meaning of all the terms and grasp the syntax. But I have a very poor comprehension of the concept of “LCD display”. I know how it looks like, but am almost ignorant of what it IS, how it FUNCTIONS, how exactly it differs from plasma displays etc." This is a good example because I assume that you don't mean that trinity functions causally as an LCD does (at least not in an empirical sense). So what else? So what's the meaning of (or what determins an) 'intrinsic possibility'? Ok you don't know the articulated details of what determins or is this intrinsic possibility but you must know the category under which it falls at least. Otherwise how can your sentence convey a meaning at all? Indeed this case would be as puzzling as if someone told me "what makes even an even number is not only the divisibility by 2 but something else which me and you can't really comprehend". That is: the only mind-indipendent possibility we can determine is either logical or causal; just as we know that the only thing that makes even an even number is the divisibility by 2. If so, if "intrinsic possibility" means logical possibility, then understand = comprehend; if "intrinsic possibility" means causal (but not empirical) processes, could you please tell me something about the theory of causation you endorse in the case of the trinity?

Sorry for having been too long. THANKS A LOT


I though I understood your position , but now I am not sure. I thought your position was that, once the proper metaphysical distinctions have been made, the doctrine of the Trinity can be seen to be logically coherent and thus possibly true. Granted, we cannot know by unaided reason that the doctrine is true. For that we need revelation. And so I thought your position was distinct from Anderson's positive mysterianism according to which the Trinity doctrine must appear to us as contradictory and thus not as logically coherent. Thus I thought the difference was essentially this:

Novak: Make the right distinctions and you will see that the doctrine is free of contradiction.

Anderson: No matter how many or which distinctions you make, you will never be able to see that the doctrine is free of contradiction.

But now you seem to be endorsing the position of Sanda above, according to which the Trinity is a mysterium stricte dictum. But this is a mysterian position. "God is both three and one" (Sanda's formulation) is clearly impenetrable to the human intellect in this life.


Some examples of God's external operation: creation of the world, speaking to the Prophets, Incarnation (although only one divine person becomes man as a result of Incarnation, the "process", so to speak, is a work of the entire Trinity), sanctification of man through sacraments. NOT Jesus's crucifiction. Why? Because it is an "operation" (rather, "passion") that God suffers by means of his assumed human nature. Because the human nature is not common to the the three persons, the operations performed by the Second Person by means of this nature also are not common. Only operations performed by any of the Persons by means of the divine nature are common to all the Persons, since it is the divine nature what is shared by them.

Yes, I think that the elemntary "supposita" doctrine is part of the true meaning of the Trinity dogma (or dogmata - see here: http://jloughnan.tripod.com/dogma.htm - n. 45-57).

I mean logical possibility when speaking about "intrinsic possibility", but I fail to see how "understanding" implies "comprehension".

Let me explain. I understand a concept when I can conceive it. I can conceive a concept in various ways. Typically, concepts are complex, they are composed of many "notes". Now some of these notes I can explicitly conceive, others I can conceive only implicitly, that is, by conceiving some other note(s) that logically imply them. The former are called actual notes, the latter virtual notes. Any concept whatsoever has a great (probably infinite) number of virtual notes. Moreover, actual notes can be conceived either distinctly - that is, as distinguished from one another - or confusedly - that is, as not distinguished from one another. Note that even if conceived confusedly, they are conceived actually: just like when you are looking at a raster picture from a distance, you actually perceive all the individual dots but are unable to distinguish them from one another.

To comprehend a concept means to conceive all its notes actually and distinctly, or at least to conceive distinctly all its actual notes.

Note that it is not necessary to have a comprehensive grasp of a concept in order to be able to entertain it. One can have a concept of "love", for example, without being able to analyse it down to the primitive concepts and achieve comprehension of it.

Hence it follows that we cannot conclude consistence of a concept from the mere lack of apparent contradiction in it. The contradiction may be hidden either among the virtual notes we fail to be aware of, or among the not-yet-distinguished confused notes.

An example: the notion of an absolutely empty possible world appears to be absolutely consistent. Many claim it IS perfectly consistent. And yet after some philosophical work can one find out that there is a necessary being in the actual world and therefore empty world is not a possible world, since it entails denial of existence to a necessary being.

So this is what is meant by the statement that "we cannot comprehend the intrinsic possibility" of a concept or, mutatis mutandis, of a doctrine. The dogma of Trinity as MSD says that it is principially impossible for a human intellect ever to analyse the conception of Trinity so that its internal consistence is evident.


it seems to me that both you and Dale Tuggy assume that for a given theory, it is either evidently consistent ("you see it is free of contradiction" or evidently inconsistent ("you see there is a contradiction in the doctrine").

From the start I assert this is a false dilemma. This was the root of my problem with the classification of the Trinity metatheories. I could not find place for myself :-)

For in truth the field of alternatives is wider: there are in fact two superposed disjunctions concerning a given doctrine D:

  1. a) D is seen to be consistent
    b) D is not seen to be consistent
  2. a) D is seen to be inconsistent
    b) D is not seen to be inconsistent
What is important is to realise that 1b) and 2b) are compatible. It can be the case that certain doctrine does not contain evident contradiction and yet it is not evident that it is absolutely free of contradiction.

This is my position concerning the Trinity. The Catholic "mysterianism" only requires that we are never capable to gain evidence of the consistency of the doctrine. On the other hand general requirements of conformity to reason of any revealed truth entail that should any apparent contradiction be pointed out, it is always possible to show, on a case-by-case basis, that the charge is unsubstantiated. Note: the capability of waiving any charges of inconsistence does not imply capability to prove consistence!

Thus all I assert is that once the doctrine is properly understood, one ceases to see any inconsistencies. But you will never be able to gain the evidence of its positive consistency either and you will be always aware that there is very much obscurity left in it.

P.S. I hope that very soon I will be able to start posting my translations of Šanda's "Treatise on God the Triune" at the following website:


I will start with the most relevant passages.

A short supplementum: I deny that "God is three and one" is impenetrable to human intellect in this life. For the intended meaning is "God is three in one sense and one in another sense". This is a meaningful sentence without any apparent contradiction. But the sentence remains mysterious in certain respect: we may ask: "In which sense one? In which sense three? Are there such senses that will suit at all?" etc. This obscurity concerning the full implications of its meaning is that which prevents us from positively seeing that it is consistent (without therby having to see that it is inconsistent).

The full doctrine of the Trinity is exactly the same case. Expressed in certain lax way it appears contradictory, after the meaning is properly explained the apparent contrdictions evaporate, but it remains obscure and little comprehended all the same.

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