Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Square circles and the Trinity, part 2: the nature of the Trinity

In this series, I interact with the criticisms of the Trinity forwarded by Steve Zara in our recent debate, using them as a springboard to examine this important doctrine and demonstrate that it is not intrinsically self-contradictory.

This is part 2 of 4. It argues that although the Trinity appears self-contradictory at first blush, this is due to an unarticulated equivocation in how we describe it. When we carefully work through the nature of God’s being, we find that the square circle is actually a cylinder.

« continued from ‘Square circles and the Trinity, part 1: believing contradictions’

In the first part of this series I talked about contradictions, and argued that if the doctrine of the Trinity really is true it cannot be self-contradictory. If it contains a contradiction, then it’s not a reasonable answer to any of the ultimate questions of reality (such as “who is God?”), and indeed it cannot even be believed. This dealt with the first part of Steve’s Zara’s comments from his second rebuttal in our debate.

The second part of those comments focuses around the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity is like the doctrine of a square circle. That is, Steve claims that the Trinity really is self-contradictory, and uses this geometric analogy to illustrate his point. It’s an analogy I find quite acceptable, and so I’d like to take it and use it as a basis for showing how we can reasonably believe the Trinity to not be contradictory, despite initial appearances.

II. The square circle

A square circle is obviously a contradiction in terms—at least at first glance. In this way, it is a very apt analogy for talking about the Trinity. It’s very helpful. It’s an analogy we can understand and use. So much so that I’m going to go ahead and argue that the doctrine that God is both one being and three beings is exactly like the doctrine that some geometric object has both one side and four sides. (We could equally talk about one side and three sides, as James Anderson does in Paradox in Christian Theology. It makes more intuitive sense to do so, since the analogy corresponds better to God’s nature. However, since Steve has introduced the analogy of circles and squares, I’ll stick with it.)

Person, being, and essence

Now, firstly, notice how I have formulated this statement about God: that he is both one being and three beings. This is not a typical formulation. Normally theologians use different terms: they distinguish between God being one in essence and three in person. Thus they draw a distinction between the way or the sense in which God is one, and the way in which he is three. This is of great importance, because it establishes that he isn’t both one and three at the same time and in the same sense. If he were, this would violate the law of noncontradiction, and the doctrine of the Trinity genuinely would be irrational and unbelievable. It could not be true, because it would be incoherent. Indeed, this is what Steve was trying to show: after all, on the face of it the notion of a square circle is certainly incoherent. It makes no sense. It is a contradiction in terms. It cannot be true.

So theologians generally talk about God as one essence and three persons. The essence is God; the persons are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For example, Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology formulates the doctrine of the Trinity as follows:

  1. God is three persons.
  2. Each person is fully God.
  3. There is one God.1

Yet, for my argument, I’ve said that God is both one being and three beings. Why haven’t I described this in terms of essence and persons? Well, it’s not because I think the orthodox formulation is faulty or inadequate. I do affirm that the way in which God is one being is different from the way in which he is three beings. But I want to be sure that the paradox inherent in the Trinity is not obscured behind this terminology of “essence” and “persons”. I want to lay bare the ontology of the Trinity (that is, the nature of its being), so that there is no doubt about how confounding and difficult it is.

When we talk about God, or when the Bible talks of God, it is referring to a single divine being. More than that, it is referring to a single, personal divine being. When Moses speaks to the LORD in Exodus, he is not speaking to an impersonal essence, and neither is he speaking to three divine persons. He is speaking to one divine person. So when we talk about God, meaning the Godhead, we are talking about a personal being—yet one who is also somehow three personal beings.

The term “essence” tends to obscure this. It’s good for avoiding the law of noncontradiction, but it’s not so useful when we come to talk about God as God. This is because we don’t have a personal relationship with an essence called God; we have a personal relationship with a person called God. So it turns out that this term “essence” is helpful for clarifying that the way in which God is one being is different from the way in which he is three—but it’s quite unhelpful in terms of actually describing what it means for God to be one being and three beings simultaneously but in different ways.

In other words, when I say that God is one being and three beings, I mean the following:

  1. God is one being in one way (call this sense A);
  2. God is three beings in another way (call this sense B);
  3. But we don’t know what it means to draw a distinction between ways of being.

Understanding senses of being

The strength of (iii) shouldn’t be underestimated. Try to imagine someone you know being himself, yet also three beings. The only way we can really conceive this is to think of multiple personality disorder. Yet this is decidedly contrary to how we know God to be. There isn’t any way that someone with multiple personality disorder can be three beings, mentally speaking, and for those three beings to also share fully in one mental being. We can imagine three mental personalities sharing in one physical being (and in this sense we can perhaps very dimly understand the Trinity by analogy). But we can’t imagine three mental personalities sharing fully in being one mental personality. Even if all these personalities were harmonious, they would still only be parts of the whole being. But the Father is not a part of God; he is fully God. Like the Son and the Spirit, he shares fully in all of God’s attributes. Each person of the Trinity is the same being as God.

So it must be admitted that there seems to be a paradox in the doctrine of the Trinity. We just don’t understand what it means to be one being in one way, and three beings in another way. We have no conception of such a thing because we have no experience of it. To be a bit colloquial, we just don’t get it.

However, although we don’t get it, we can see that it is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. Rather, when we put it into noncontradictory language, it just remains baffling to us. But why should it not? All things considered, we can’t really be surprised that God is someone whose nature we do not, and perhaps cannot, fully understand. It comes as no shock to the Christian that God is baffling. There’s an entire doctrine in systematic theology, known as the incomprehensibility of God, which is built up around this fact. Being God is certainly a condition none of us will ever experience. And since we understand things primarily in terms of our experience, our understanding of God is necessarily limited. We can understand the concept of God’s mind in terms of our own minds; but where there are differences we are confounded. We can understand God’s love in terms of our own love; but where there are differences we are bemused. Yet we cannot understand God’s timelessness, because we ourselves have no experience of it. We grasp it in only the most abstract way.

This does not mean that these things are not explicable in principle—merely that they are not explicable to us. Just as a color-blind person may find the concept of a distinction between red and green inexplicable, yet can accept the possibility on faith from a normally sighted person, so we can find the concept of different senses of being inexplicable, yet accept the possibility on faith from God.

Reconciling the square and the circle

This returns me to Steve’s analogy of the circle and the square. Let me draw on James Anderson’s work and extend it a little bit (I’m relying on Paul Manata’s review of Anderson’s book, which I unfortunately have not read myself). I’d like to give an example, which I think is a convincing one as analogies go, showing that it’s reasonable to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is resolvable—even if we can’t see how:

Imagine a two-dimensional world called Flatland, inhabited by two-dimensional people. To these people, three-dimensional objects like spheres or cones or cylinders are simply inexplicable. Since the Flatlanders only have experience of two dimensions, they cannot conceive of three-dimensional shapes. These are simply beyond their understanding, because the entire conceptual framework of their minds is limited to the horizontal plane. Now, you are able to communicate with the Flatlanders, and you wish to talk to them about cylinders. How do you do this?

Well, if you’re trying to reveal to them what a cylinder looks like from the side, you might say that it’s a square. If, on the other hand, you’re concerned with revealing something as regards how it looks from above, you might say that it’s a circle. Both of these propositions are true. You, as a three-dimensional being, find it trivial to reconcile them, because you can see that the cylinder is shaped like a square in one way (let’s call it sense A), and shaped like a circle in another way (let’s call it sense B). You can see that neither the square nor the circle are “parts” of the cylinder in the way we usually use the word; and both share fully in its nature. Yet they are distinct.

The Flatlanders are not so fortunate. They don’t know what it means to see something from above or from the side. These terms have no meaning to them; words like “height” and “vertical” don’t correlate to reality as they know it. They can’t conceive of objects with height because they can’t conceive of height itself. They can only conceive of shapes with two dimensions—and in two dimensions a circle cannot be a square. They don’t know, nor can they understand, what it means for something to be shaped in different senses or different ways. They have a conception of the horizontal sense, but not of the vertical sense. So an object which is both a circle and a square appears, at least as far as they can understand these things, to be a contradiction in terms. Nonetheless, they have reason to believe you when you tell them about cylinders, and so they formulate the following way of talking about them:

  1. A cylinder is one-sided in one way (call this sense A).
  2. A cylinder is four-sided in another way (call this sense B).
  3. But we don’t know what it means to draw a distinction between ways of being sided.

Now the Flatlanders are quite correct to formulate their understanding in this manner. They know that what you have told them is explicable to you; that it is real and true and believable. That is, there’s nothing intrinsically irrational or incoherent about a square circle when it’s configured as a cylinder, and it does not violate the laws of logic—even if they can’t understand how. Therefore, having reason to trust you, they hold that a cylinder is shaped in sense A as a square, and in sense B as a circle—even though they don’t have any idea what it means for there to be different senses of shapedness. Similarly, we have reason to trust God, and so we hold that as a being in sense A he is one, and as a being in sense B he is three—even though we don’t have any idea what it means for there to be different senses of being.

Can we believe what we can’t understand?

So far, I’ve been talking about the ontology of God. Ontology is the area of philosophy which deals with the essential nature of things; with the nature of being. I’ve suggested that, ontologically speaking, God is one being or one person in one sense, and three beings or three persons in another sense. However, because we don’t know how to draw a distinction between different senses of being, there tends to be an implicit equivocation in our ontological descriptions of God. This results in the appearance of contradiction.

What I mean is, we talk about the Father being fully God, the Son being fully God, and the Spirit being fully God. But this seems to imply that the Father is the Son, and the Son is the Spirit, and the Spirit is the Father, and so on. They’re all one being, after all. But if they are all one being, then it seems to us that there is no ontological distinction between them—so how can we talk about them as different beings? Looking to the cylinder analogy, though, it’s evident that this would be like the Flatlanders saying that the square is the circle, and the circle is the square. The contradiction appears because our descriptions are limited in accuracy. When it comes to the nature of God, we suffer the same sort of conceptual shortcomings that the Flatlanders do when it comes to the nature of space. Our language describes things with a level of accuracy corresponding only to our own perception; not necessarily to the actual state of things.

Therefore, we just don’t have words to describe God accurately enough to avoid confusion. Because of this lack of precision, we seem to be contradicting ourselves when we aren’t. There is what Anderson calls an unarticulated equivocation in our description of God. A certain distinction in God’s nature goes unsaid because our language can’t capture it. God’s nature is more subtle, more fine than our language is. Trying to describe his being in human terms is perhaps a little like trying to measure the width of a hair with a tape measure. The tool is too coarse for the job. Thus, the paradox we perceive is a merely apparent contradiction, resulting from an unarticulated equivocation (what Anderson whimsically dubs a MACRUE). Once we articulate that equivocation (that is, once we explicitly distinguish between senses of being), we see that no real contradiction exists. We just find the solution inexplicable.

But in the previous part of this series I argued that we cannot believe what we can’t understand. Am I now contradicting myself, since we can’t understand the Trinity; or am I merely apparently contradicting myself, due to an unarticulated equivocation? The latter; so let me articulate. In the previous post, I was discussing logical contradictions. These are inexplicable in the sense that they are meaningless. Since a contradiction cancels itself out, it means nothing. And we can’t understand something which has no meaning.

However, the Trinity is inexplicable in a different sense. God’s being is not logically meaningless. Indeed, it is logically meaningful. We can explicate it, as I have above, and we can understand it in logical terms. For example, if I wrote out a description of the Trinity symbolically you could read and understand it. It wouldn’t contain any contradictions, nothing would cancel itself out, and it would be meaningful.

What this doesn’t imply is that this meaning itself is explicable to us. Something can have objective meaning but remain subjectively inexplicable. Objectively, a contradiction has no meaning; and so subjectively it naturally does not either. But objectively, the Trinity does have meaning. This fact alone doesn’t imply that we must be able to grasp it, but in principle it can be grasped. To a sufficiently enabled mind, the meaning is available. But to us? No, not necessarily. Just as the distinction between red and green can be believed in principle, yet not really understood by a color-blind man; and just as the distinction between horizontal and vertical can be believed in principle, yet not really understood by the Flatlanders; so the distinction between being and being can be believed in principle, yet not really understood by us.

Economy versus ontology

This is why theologians, when speaking about the distinctions between the persons of God, generally avoid ontology. We are limited in terms of describing that ontology, as witnessed by our fanciful analogies involving square circles or lumps of bronze which look like statues. We find it far more useful to talk about the economy of the persons of God—that is, their interpersonal relationship, and the relationship between their functions. And in that regard, there is a great deal which can be said; a great many distinctions which can be drawn and meditated upon. These economic distinctions are helpful for describing the ways in which the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct—and they are spiritually more important than whatever ontological distinction exists as well. I’m not going to go into these economic distinctions in this article, as ontology is really at issue and I still need to address it further if I’m to adequately dissect Steve’s argument—but as I do so, bear in mind that these economic differences exist, and that they are important. I encourage you to study them further.

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (England: InterVarsity Press, 2003); p 231.
Continued in ‘Square circles and the Trinity, part 3: the law of identity’ »

47 comments

  1. Mike

    1.Hmm…. I’ve heard that before. I think I can show that this doesn’t work. And the reason is that this is about concepts. You are using referentially opaque, obscure language to make an incoherent concept seem coherent simply by saying (in effect) “A thing can be both square and circular, but we do not know how”.

    This is both unoriginal and embarrassing, as it is no solution at all. As I said, this is about concepts. Unless a coherent conception can be constructed, the inconsistency remains. To say “Well, I JUST KNOW its not inconsistent (because after all, why should we be able to understand god)” is nothing but a petitio principii – begging the question.

    The inconsistency remains until a clear, consistent account can be given. Unless it can – it is completely irrational to believe in anything requiring that concept which is shown to be contradictory, and as long as no such account is given and has withstood logical/mereological analysis, we must conclude that any concept of an entity requiring that concept cannot have a real referent, ie. we must conclude that God cannot possibly exist.

    2. Furthermore – we can have no coherent conception of a distinction between essence and personality in a way that would make it possible for three persons to be of one essence. What are the exact ontological implications of “essence”, what is that supposed to be? It is just another obscure term long done away with by philosophy – because it has no specific, coherent definition. Also, a definition that comes down to “that which makes it possible to be 3 and 1 at the same time” won’t do either, because then I could just introduce the term “grzlhmpf” and define it as that which makes it possible to be square and circular at once.

    3. Even if 2) wasn’t so, it would still not solve the mereological inconsistency, because – after all, god’s essence is not supposed to be partitioned so that each element of the trinity has one disjunct part of it – because in that case it still wouldn’t be true that God is wholly present in each element of the trinity.

    After all, we have a disjunct of persons. If you want to introduce the concept of essence in relation to personhood to avoid the inconsistency, you will have to define it rigorously, give a specific definition and account for how that supposed thing (“Essence”) can be wholly present in three disjunct things. So this merely defers the mereological inconsistency, it doesn’t solve it.

    4. (Related to the “grzlhmpf” example in 2) It is self-evident that merely introducing “grzlhmpf” artificially, basically AS “That which avoids the inconsistency” is not a viable strategy. You would first have to show INDEPENDENTLY that something like this exists. So you need arguments independent of that which you want to defend (theism) to show that the concept of “essence” in that way i) makes sense (see 3) and ii) has at least one real referent. Then these arguments have to hold up against scrutiny themselves.

    5. The Flatlanders-example doesn’t work either. This is because

    I)It makes no sense to speak of a three-dimensional object being in two-dimensional space… it only (in principle) makes sense to speak of intersections. That part of the 3D object that intersects the 2D
    area IS an infinitesimal 2D slice – and as such obeys the “laws” of that world – of 2D areas

    II) As you correctly note, EX HYPOTHESI they cannot have a coherent concept of a three-dimensional entitiy. What you fail to acknowledge is that this means that the ontological commitments any existence-propositions pertaining to “such things” make are obscure, wild speculation. They cannot even know whether such a thing exists. And since they cannot conceive of it, they can never have epistemic justification for such existence-assumptions.

    They cannot have a coherent conception of a supposed “something” outside of what they understand. This also means that the concept can never in principle have any explanatory value, and as such is entirely useless.

    6. The trinity is by far not the only conceptual inconsistency in the concept of the christian deity. In fact, the mere concept of a non-spatiotemporal entity with causal power is inconsistent. This does not mean that nothing non-spatiotemporal can exist. But it would be entirely causally impotent – both with regards to the spatiotemporal realm AND to its own realm! My favourite inconsistency however is “Personal AND Non-spatiotemporal”, which makes no sense at all

    7. (although this is a minor point when compared to 6), even if this was possible: There is extremely good reason to assume causal closure of the spatiotemporal realm. Denying this would mean having to overcome severe obstacles – for example the law of conservation of energy and momentum. Simply claiming “it might be that it doesn’t hold”, won’t do – because one would need positive proof that it doesn’t hold! And again, this would need arguments INDEPENDENT of what one wants to defend. Even if 6 wouldn’t hold, and it would in principle make sense to speak of non-spatiotemporal causal agents with respect to the spatiotemporal realm – theism (and interactionist dualism, and any supernaturalism) always leaves the question unanswered HOW these supposed non-spatiotemporal entities effect something in the spatiotemporal realm. All they say is “direct fulfillment of intentionality”. This again is not a coherent, specified concept – just a label without description, and thus cannot be known to refer. In fact, we can understand intentionality and intentionality-fulfillment only through the concept of causation, not the other way around!

    Best,
    -Mike

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Mike, thanks for your comments. Some of them will be addressed in the final part of this series, but let me respond to a few of your points here—

    1. I think I’ve been fairly up-front about the fact that Christians must affirm that God can be both one and three, but that we don’t know how. This is not embarrassing if we have good reason to believe it despite our conceptual limitations. Since we do have good reason (the testimony of God in Scripture), we don’t need to prove it independently. The only thing we need to do in its defense is show that it is not self-referentially absurd. (Indeed, I haven’t the faintest idea how one might go about proving it independently at all. The best proof possible through natural theology would probably be similar to the unity/plurality argument I presented in my debate with Steve; but that is only a very general argument, and I doubt it could be sufficiently refined to prove the Trinity specifically, apart from special revelation.)

    I think it is relatively trivial to show that the Trinity is not genuinely contradictory—at least, not necessarily contradictory under Christian metaphysical assumptions (which themselves are not contradictory). However, our being able to show that the Trinity is not self-contradictory doesn’t imply that we must be able to provide a humanly explicable description of it. These are two different issues.

    2. I’ve generally tried to avoid the term “essence”, and even “person” where possible, by focusing on being. As I have (and will) argue, it is plausible that our conception of being, which is non-transcendent, contains an equivocation when applied to transcendent being. Again, though, this is a Christian metaphysical supposition, so there is no reason for you to accept it if you don’t already accept the authority of Scripture. I’m not trying to present an argument which would compel you to accept this doctrine. I am presenting an argument which demonstrates that the allegation of internal inconsistency against it is unjustified.

    3. See above. Additionally, are you presupposing a theory of absolute identity? Because I am not; as I will argue in part 3, absolute identity is naive, and cannot function in Christian metaphysics. I hold to a theory of relative identity, which seems to largely deflate most of your objections.

    4. I see no need to show independently that “being” is not necessarily a univocal term when applied to God. I have already given arguments to show that it is plausible to think this makes sense; and I have already assumed that there is one real referent because I believe the testimony of Scripture. That said, theologians have produced a number of analogies which, if not showing essence per se, at least demonstrate that it’s a reasonable concept in principle. You seem to want me to produce a naturalistic or materialistic example of something before you’ll let me apply it to a transcendent object on my own terms. But (i) this is obviously a category error if it’s the nature of this transcendent object which grounds my hypothesis; and (ii) this is flagrantly stacking the deck, albeit in a way that (iii) might even be disproved on your own grounds by future discoveries. A hundred years ago, philosophers and physicists alike would have insisted that photons can’t be in two places at once—so it seems as if scientific precedent robs your argument of much of its power.

    5. Firstly, the Flatlanders analogy doesn’t require that a three-dimensional object exist in two-dimensional space. I think you’re either misunderstanding the analogy, or taking it too far. The point is to show that, in a universe in which three-dimensional objects exist, it is conceivable that some inhabitants of that universe can only perceive two dimensions, and therefore find revelation about cylinders to be inexplicable. The problem is limited to the Flatlanders’ conceptual framework; not to reality as it actually is. It is an epistemological difficulty; not a metaphysical one.

    Secondly, the whole point of the analogy is that the Flatlanders can know about the existence of cylinders through revelation from a three-dimensional being. They are not engaging in “natural cylinderology”, trying to discover what they can about the three-dimensional realm by observation and reasoning. That would certainly constitute speculation (wild or otherwise). They are engaging in “philosophical cylinderology”, based on special revelation from a three-dimensional being. Thus there is nothing wild or speculative about their beliefs. Now, I understand that you do not accept revelation as a valid source of knowledge; but that is neither here nor there as far as the analogy goes, since it is a Christian analogy, and Christians accept revelation as not only a source of knowledge, but the ultimate source.

    Furthermore, I think you’re equivocating in your use of the term “coherent”. The Flatlanders may not have an explicable concept of a three-dimensional entity; but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a coherent concept. I take coherency to involve an agreement of constituent propositions; that is, a coherent concept is explicable in principle. That doesn’t mean that it must be explicable in practice.

    Lastly, it simply isn’t true that something must be fully explicable to have explanatory value. The Trinity has excellent explanatory power over the problem of unity and plurality, which I used to my advantage in the debate with Steve. Indeed, it is evident that a fully explicable state of affairs (as we see it) would have no explanatory power over this question.

    6. The allegation that a non-spatiotemporal entity can have no causal power in the spatiotemporal world is popular, but arbitrary. Why must it be the case? Similarly, why can something personal not be non-spatiotemporal? The objection is without basis, except perhaps of the intuitive kind.

    7. In the same vein, I fail to see how the laws of conservation are severe obstacles here. Since these laws apply to the spatiotemporal world, and not to objects outside it, why would it matter if these objects can interact with the spatiotemporal realm? And again, why do you insist on positive proof that these laws don’t always hold? Why assume that the interaction between spatiotemporal and non-spatiotemporal objects can even be observed or measured? And why assume that, even if they can be, we must do so before we can have good reasons for believing in it? Similarly, why assume that we need to be able to explain the mechanism of interaction before we can believe it happens? What kind of mechanism do you have in mind? A materialistic one? Why? We believe in plenty of things which have no materialistic explanations (or no good ones). You seem to be presupposing philosophical naturalism with procedural skepticism thrown in, in order to make your objections against a non-naturalistic worldview. Isn’t that both pointless and self-defeating?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Paul M.

    Mike,

    1. Manifestly unfair. There are no agreed, rigorous, agreed upon, definitions for plenty of things. Matter, for starters. Shall we trot out my various book by physicists and philosophers and their disparate definitions of ‘matter?’ How about time, space, &c.? How about when a heap of sand becomes a non-heap? How about ‘science?’ How about ‘the scientific method?’ Shall we trot out my Philosophy of Science books?

    Moreover, given the analogical theory of religious language, you would *expect* some fuzziness; this is especially so when dealing with a sui generis being. This is also pointed out by secular thinker too. See Metaphors To Live By.

    Lastly, it is not irrational to believe the doctrine based upon an externalist, Plantinganian theory of warrant. The doctrine is known via testimony. Testimonial knowledge is transitive. Thus if the testifier knows that P, and the testifiee believes what he said, then the testifiee knows that P.

    My child may know that all boys have XY chromosome and all girls are not boys. Now, say that I, a medical doctor (say), am overheard by my child saying that I operated on a young teenage girl today but there were some difficulties do to her XY chromosome pair. She comes up to me after I hang up and says, “Daddy, how can someone who has XY chromosome be a girl?” I tell her, my 6 yr. old, that I was speaking both to phenotype and genotype. Thus we have here an example of an merely apparent contradiction due to unarticulated equivocation. My child trusts me and knows that I, her father, would not lie to her. She takes it on my say-so. But she hardly could define, let alone understand, genotype and phenotype. Since she believes me, and her faculties are functioning properly according to a design plan that has the purpose of producing true beliefs (one way of which is knowledge based on testimony), and she is in a proper epistemic environment, and testimonial knowledge is transitive, she therefore knows.

    I fear you’d ultimately end up giving a de jure objection that is independent of the de facto question. That is, if Christianity is true, then the story works. Thus your objection only lands if Christianity is false.

    2. Terms like that are introduced to avoid explicit or formal contradictions. As most agree, Christians don’t have any of those kinds of contradictions when it comes to the Trinity. They problem is its metaphsysical affirmations conjoined with other metaphysical affirmations that give, what they think, is an implicit contradiction. But at this point we introduce the notion of a merely apparent contradiction resulting from unarticulated equivocation (MACRUE). We bring out our doctrines of the creator/creature distinction, the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God, various Phi. language tools, and show that there’s no problem holding that we have a MACRUE on our hands. Warranted belief in the doctrine, i.e., that there is one God and three persons, each numerically identical to the ousa but numerically distinct from the other hypostasis, is had by 1 (above) – of course 1 would need to be fleshed out more. Obviously beyond the scope of a blog comment, but I sketched the basics.

    3. Unsure if you’ve heard of perichoresis? Starw man point.

    4. Creator/creature distinction. Sui generis.

    5.

    I: See Dominic’s point.

    II: No, you’re forgetting a testimonial view of knowledge (see the Coady piece; see the Lackey/Sosa work, &C.). They base their belief off the testimony of Spacelander – who is much smarter and is an overall epistemic superior. So, they can know that there is such an object as “cone.” And “cone” is both triangular and circular.

    The have a concept of a “triangle” and a “circle.” But it could be a MACRUE. Thus they might not know exactly where the equivocation lie. For example, I’ll cut and paste from part of my review of Paradox in Christian Theology:

    Say you have a group of people; call them “flatlanders.” Flatlanders are dimensionally impoverished with respect to their conceptual scheme. They only see in two dimensions. But, say that the Flatlanders get a revelation from the trustworthy, honest, and ultra smart “Spacelanders.” Spacelanders see things three-dimensionally. The revelation the Flatlanders get is:

    (S1) The object O is shaped triangularly.
    (S2) The Object O is not shaped triangularly.

    Say the object is a three dimensional cone (Anderson includes pictures at this point in order to better illustrate his point). (S1) and (S2) can be rendered formally consistent in at least two ways:

    (S1A) The object O is shaped1 triangularly.
    (S2A) The object O is shaped2 triangularly.

    Or:

    (S1B) The object O is shaped triangularly1.
    (S2B) The object O is shaped triangularly2.

    The meanings of the terms are refined so as to remove inconsistency, e.g., “shaped1” conveys something like “horizontally-shaped;” “shaped2” means something like “vertically-shaped” (see pictures, PCT, p.231), same with “triangularly” 1 and 2. Thus, (S1A) and (S2A) effectively capture the same facts as the conjunction of (S1B) and (S2B). The dimensionally impoverished Flatlander, relying on trustworthy testimony from a superior source, can reasonably conclude that (S1) and (S2) are merely apparently contradictory statements about some “transcendent” object.

    6. Begs the question. If minds are immaterial, then your very typing of this physical post is an example of the immaterial causing something to happen in the physical.

    This only “makes no sense” because you’re deluded by your materialist dogma.

    I’d also add that theories of causation are many. And ultimately you rest on “it just causes it.” Well, the dualist can appeal to that kind of explanation!

    Materialists have a problem of causal interaction too. See here:

    http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1118797098.shtml

    Moreover, since beliefs are not physical (at least the content of them are not, then it is not your beliefs that cause conclusions in your head but just the moving of atoms. Thus you have no reason to trust your own reasoning.

    7. Responses here are roughly the same as (6).

    It may be self-refuting since your beliefs caused you to type of a post. But beliefs (at least the content of) are immaterial. Show where did the energy come from and go when this post of yours was typed?

    Also, see Vallicella. He claims that “anyone who takes this [objection] seriously is not thinking too hard.”

    http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1131235741.shtml

  4. James

    “quantum mechanics holds that states such as spin are indeterminate until such time as some physical intervention is made to measure the spin of the object in question. It is equally as likely that any given particle will be observed to be spin-up as that it will be spin-down. Measuring any number of particles will result in an unpredictable series of measures that will tend more and more closely to half up and half down. However, if this experiment is done with entangled particles the results are quite different. When two members of an entangled pair are measured, one will always be spin-up and the other will be spin-down. The distance between the two particles is irrelevant. In order to explain this result, some have theorized that there are hidden variables that account for the spin of each particle, and that these hidden variables are determined when the entangled pair is created. But, if this is so, then the hidden variables imust be in communication no matter how far apart the particles are, the hidden variable describing one particle must be able to change instantly when the other is measured. If the hidden variables stop interacting when they are far apart, the statistics of the measurements obey an inequality, which is violated both in quantum mechanics and in experiments.”

    It’s funny, the atheists demand this and that explaination. How exactly does A effect B? Yet they are looking directly at things like quantum entanglement that defy all logic and cause and effect explaination – and they accept it!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_entanglement

  5. Brian

    James, whenever someone asserts something, they need to be able to justify it. Otherwise we have no reason to accept the assertion. The justification needs to be non-contradictory. This is why atheists ask believers to justify their assertions and question the logic. For example, the basic assertion of a triune God, a God that is 3 distinct persons and yet 1 person is logically incoherent. It violates the transitivity requirement of identity. That is, God must be identical with father,son, holy spirit and thus father identical with son and holy spirit, and so on. The Trinity asserts that father isn’t identical with son and spirit and so on and thus is false in this version.

    You are right to ask scientists (not necessarily atheists) about the perceived illogicality of the Wikipedia quote you have provided. I say perceived because WikiPedia is a good source, but it’s not perfect. Why not get a book or ask a QM scientist? If they can’t provide a logical explanation, then feel free to reject it. And remember, accepting tentatively a scientific hypothesis, that could be rejected later based on evidence isn’t the same as dogmatically asserting an incoherent belief such as the trinity.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Brian, again, I’ll cover this in greater detail in part 3 (and 4) of this series, but for those reading this thread, it needs to be made clear:

    You are presupposing a theory of absolute (ie numerical) identity. As I’ll argue, this is naive. Even if such a theory is defensible, it isn’t necessarily true, and there is no reason for a Christian to accept it. In fact, I think it’s clear that a Christian must hold to a theory of relative identity. Under such a theory, the Trinity does not violate transitivity. So if your argument presupposes absolute identity, and Christians reject absolute identity, it is simply irrelevant to us. You’re burning a strawman; nothing more.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  7. Brian

    Hi Bnonn, I’ll have to read your article. I’ve never read a Christian argue that God head isn’t 3 distinct persons in a unity. That is Jesus is a distinct person, same for the father and holy spirity, yet all 1 person called God. In fact I’ve never heard of relative identity. Either something is or it isn’t. Either Jesus is God or he isn’t. If you say he isn’t, that’s fine, no trinity. If you say he is, then incoherence. Anyway, bring on the arguments.

  8. Steve Zara

    James-

    There are various attempts to explain what is going on with quantum mechanics. The difference between scientists and theologists is that scientists haven’t declared one explanation correct. We wait for hard evidence, and we admit when there are gaps in understanding. Scientists don’t pick one interpretation of quantum mechanics and declare that this must be the true one because of faith, or even from logic alone.

  9. James

    The problem is Steve, no matter which way we go with explaining entanglement some other theory is going to be destroyed, and what will that open up? And down the rabbit hole we go. Does information past between the formely entangled particles instantly? How is that possible? Perhaps we are dealing with retrocausality – and what a can of worms that will open up? Or perhaps we are at the end of explaination, perhaps we will never know. Yet we can harness photons and electrons even though we can not understand their true nature.

    My point being, these actions are inexplicable to rationality and physics as we know it yet we accept them and even use them. And I would add Steve, that this is not merely a gap in understanding this is the whole ball of wax since everything is made up by these sub-atomic particles. This is why I asked you in the past to prove that we are living in a strictly material universe, and not a extra-natural universe. I asked how one would know (I believe you gave some arbitrary definitions).

  10. Steve Zara

    James-

    That is the fun of rational and scientific explanation. We scientists adore opening up cans of worms. We have the tools to examine the can, and the worms!

    Also, I don’t need to prove anything about the naturalness or otherwise of the universe. If you want to suggest some non-natural aspect you need to explain the criteria you would use to determine that something we observe isn’t natural. That is quite a challenge.

    Bnonn-

    Regarding the flatland analogy. I’m afraid it doesn’t work. Even flatlanders could detect the true nature of their reality (just like we can detect curved space). They would know that a statement that their world was purely 2D was false.

    I see a real problem here. There are words in scripture, which if taken as read, form a logical contradiction. If we have to move to saying that our knowledge is complete, or relative, then we have to admit the words themselves are incomplete, which gives a problem for the idea of getting meaning from scripture – which other words may be incomplete?

    A whimsical view of this problem could be that there is an important message in scripture – it is saying “This isn’t mean to be taken seriously, and to provie it, here is a contradiction”.

  11. Steve Zara

    Since we do have good reason (the testimony of God in Scripture), we don’t need to prove it independently.

    That isn’t a good reason. A good reason is something that can help convince others who are sceptical. Such a reason needs to built up from axioms and procedures of reasoning that can be widely accepted and used within rational discourse. The nature and reliability of scripture are not in that category; they are seriously question-begging (that there is a God, that it is the God you believe in, and that scripture is his word).

    It seems a bit odd to claim that scripture is a good reason for belief when the matter under discussion is the problem with the meaning of words in scripture.

  12. James

    Steve,

    Remember I did ask you first to prove that this was a purely naturalistic universe. You really did not have an answer. Or your standards were arbitrary. You did mention cause and effect – show me the cause and effect of formely entangled photons. What caused them to mirrow each other? How about the double slit test? How can photons produce a diffraction pattern or a interference pattern depending on whether or not it’s being view or measured? Where is the cause?

    And yes, I base my assumption of a supernatural universe on Holy Writ. And you base your assumption on what?

  13. Steve Zara

    James –

    You seem to be missing the point. I don’t have to prove anything. We have found that the assumption of materialism is a highly productive method of discovering things.

    You have to show predictive power from your holy writ for it to be acceptable as a way of investigating the universe. Perhaps you could use it to come up with a prediction of the energy of the Higgs boson – you have some time, as the LHC in Cern isn’t going to be switched on for a month or two.

    This may seem glib, but it really isn’t. You just don’t get anywhere in investigating reality from holy writ. There are no testable theories, and little chance for falsification (if contradictions or inconsistencies are found, they are often hand-waved away).

    I am sorry, but saying that Quantum Mechanics looks weird is not the slightest justification for abandoning scientific rationalism as a method for investigating reality, and resorting to holy books.

  14. Steve Zara

    James-

    To summarise, you are confusing logical proofs with methods of investigation. Declaring that something is supernatural blocks further investigation. If you say that something is beyond laws, then you aren’t going to explore to try and understand the laws that might apply. I find it sad that such barriers to rational investigation are put up.

  15. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Steve, I think you’re confused about the relative epistemological roles of science and revelation. Science is a useful means of gaining operational knowledge. But operational knowledge is on a significantly lower epistemic level than revelational knowledge. More importantly, operational knowledge requires revelational knowledge. You’re talking about science as if it is its own metaphysic; but it isn’t. Your scientific assumptions are unfounded without a solid philosophy of science to back them up—and only Christianity can provide that.

    Indeed, your whole pitch is bemusing to me (and I think to other Christians here). You’re talking about science as if it is the ultimate or only means of discovering truth. But science, correctly applied, does not concern itself with truth at all. Rather, it is concerned with usefully manipulating reality. It is only when scientists get above themselves and start to think that their discipline is about discovering truth qua truth, rather than about fulfilling God’s command to have dominion over the world, that problems arise. It is only when a model is considered to be the truth, rather than to be a wrong but useful description of the truth, that we start to have trouble. Please refer to part 4 of my series on science.

    As regards your criticism of the Flatland analogy: even if it’s valid, you’re just stretching the analogy beyond its breaking point; which really proves nothing except that it’s an analogy.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  16. Steve Zara

    Bnonn –

    You are confusing truth with how we find it. There has been plenty of work on the philosophy behind science and how it operates. Science certainly does concern itself with truth. What it does not do is to claim it has found final truths. In that way, it is not the same kind of investigation as mathematics and logic. But, science is the only way to deal useful with reality as against abstractions.

    Revelation isn’t even the kind of thing we should be considering in such a role.

    Your scientific assumptions are unfounded without a solid philosophy of science to back them up—and only Christianity can provide that.

    I don’t think there would be many philosophers would agree with that.

    Also, in past writings you have claimed that science has to give way to scripture, that is ultimately destructive to science and reason, not supportive of it. I find it a deeply worrying view, to be honest.

  17. James

    Steve,

    I believe this is still a problem for you. You have no objective standards for deciding if we live in a strictly material world or in a supernatural world. Perhaps a supernatural world is partly open to understanding, and partly closed. And you assume that investigation will bring the answers – but how do you know that? It is an assumption. And Bnonn is correct, it is one thing to harness the electron it is another to truely understand what an electron is. You also spoke of prediction, and as I pointed out on your blog even generally false theories can make true predictions.

    Let me again quote Popper:

    “Although in science we do our best to find the truth, we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure whether we have got it….In science there is no “knowledge,” in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science, we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth.…Einstein declared that his theory was false – he said that it would be a better approximation to the truth than Newton’s, but he gave reasons why he would not, even if all predictions came out right, regard it as a true theory.

    Popper Selections, edited by David Miller; Princeton University Press, 1985

  18. Steve Zara

    James-

    You keep inventing problems for me that I just don’t have.

    Let’s look at things this way: whatever is out there in reality, we need to have a procedure for investigating is that we can mostly agree on with others, and that can overcome the known failings of the human mind – that our intuition is a poor tool for dealing with things, and that we have prejudices and emotional attachments to ideas. Scientific rationalism has shown itself to be extremely good at overcoming those factors. As a result we have explored areas of reality we never knew existed.

    You are right to quote Einstein – the idea of “a better approximation to the truth” is just what science is for. There are no short-cuts to truth. You can only work towards them with ideas and tests of those ideas against reality.

    Also, you are making a well-known logical mistake. Even if you could show that rational scientific investigation is actually a bad way to look for the truth about reality, it does not help you one iota to demonstrate the usefulness of revelation or scripture in this respect.

    What you are suggesting is effectively intellectual anarchy – we all base our search for truth on what we think are “special feelings”. That is going back to the dark ages, and abandoning centuries, if not millenia, of intellectual progress. It is hiding in a cave because one is too scared to look at what might be out there.

    By the way. how does scripture tell you what the electron actually is?

    How about a prediction of the mass of the Higgs Boson using scripture?

  19. James

    1. Steve, it is interesting that they refer to the Higgs boson as the God particle. But I fail to see how this helps answer my question. How do you know the difference between a natural universe and a super-natural universe? What standards would you use that would not be completely arbitrary? Or how does Higgs boson (which I read about this AM) solve the non-causal actions of photons?

    2. I never said that science was not useful, I said it was on your blog (even though the method mostly relies on logical fallacies i.e. induction and asserting the consequence).

    3. Are you suggesting that truth can only be know through the scientific method? If yes, then your belief would be self-refuting (because that belief is not known through the scientific method). If no, then you agree that there are other competiting sources of knowledge/truth.

    4. We Christians are not speaking of “special feelings” we are speaking of direct revelation from our Creator. Actual information communicated to human beings. Now, if this was the case Steve, why wouldn’t that be a genuine source of truth?

    5. And no, the bible does not tell us about the true nature of electrons, it was never meant to. It does however record the historical interaction between God and man….

  20. steve zara

    James-

    It is a delight to see you respond in a way that makes my case so well.

    I am not claiming what the Higgs Boson solves for you. I am simply asking you to make a clear and falsifiable prediction about reality.

    I am not suggesting science is the only way to find truth. I am simply asking you to demonstrate the usefulness of alternatives. So far, you have shown nothing.

    And no, the bible does not tell us about the true nature of electrons, it was never meant to. It does however record the historical interaction between God and man….

    Brilliant! so you are willing to define the limits of what the bible can discuss, and what it can’t discuss. So….

    I now formally ask you and Bnonn Tennant to enter my Higgs Challenge:
    http://zarbi.livejournal.com/146017.html

    If you don’t enter then I will be able to declare that you concede that science has dominance over scripture regarding our understanding of physical reality.

  21. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Steve, there’s no denying that there has been a lot of work in the philosophy of science; but that work has to be useful if you’re going to base your knowledge-acquisition process on it. You say that science concerns itself with truth; but this just doesn’t mesh with what we know of science and its limitations. The history of science is just a very long list of wrong theories. Even if we get to the point of a grand unified theory, it will still be wrong.

    But, science is the only way to deal useful with reality as against abstractions. Revelation isn’t even the kind of thing we should be considering in such a role.

    How do you know this? I can equally assert that revelation is the only way to deal usefully with reality qua reality, with science being useful only in the subsidiary role of dealing with physical reality, wherein it is informed by revelation. Science without a revelatory foundation is epistemically useless. Moreover, though, I can actually validate this assertion with reasoning (see below).

    Also, in past writings you have claimed that science has to give way to scripture, that is ultimately destructive to science and reason, not supportive of it. I find it a deeply worrying view, to be honest.

    Again, how do you know this? If Scripture is the objectively true word of God, then naturally science, which is always wrong in some respect, should defer to it. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we treat Scripture as if it is a scientific textbook; merely that we recognize the proper place of science, and don’t let it have primacy over Scripture. Certain conclusions of science can be tested against Scripture, as can certain methods of scientific inquiry (like methodological naturalism) or certain philosophies which are generally asserted to be part and parcel with science (like philosophical naturalism, which has no necessary connection with science whatsoever).

    I am not claiming what the Higgs Boson solves for you. I am simply asking you to make a clear and falsifiable prediction about reality. I am not suggesting science is the only way to find truth. I am simply asking you to demonstrate the usefulness of alternatives. So far, you have shown nothing.

    Steve, notice how you are asking Jim to validate revelation as a useful alternative for finding truth according to scientific notions of what truth is. Why? Since Jim does not presuppose the primacy of science, why should he expect revelation to conform to scientific ideas about what is acceptable as a theory of truth, and what is not? Moreover, since revelation primarily deals with supernatural rather than natural phenomena, which scientific inquiry is impotent to examine, the question just doesn’t make any sense. Why must revelation make quasi-scientific predictions, or provide scientifically useful information, in order to be acceptable as a source of truth? (Of course, revelation actually does make a lot of predictions, and fulfilled prophecy is a powerful apologetic argument for its truth, but I am assuming you mean scientific, as-yet-untested predictions.) Do you subject, say, the testimony of a friend to the same sorts of criteria for acceptance?

    This really brings us back to the question Jim has repeatedly put to you, which you have avoided answering: How do you know the difference between a natural universe and a super-natural universe? What standards would you use that would not be completely arbitrary? You have no objective standards for deciding if we live in a strictly material world or in a supernatural world. Perhaps a supernatural world is partly open to understanding, and partly closed. And you assume that investigation will bring the answers—but how do you know that? It is an assumption.

    As regards your “Higgs Challenge”, the whole idea of it seems profoundly confused. In fact, you appear to be burning a strawman. The epistemological primacy of Scripture for Christians doesn’t entail functional primacy in all fields of inquiry. Science works within the bounds described by Scripture, but that doesn’t mean that we think it can be replaced by Scripture. Since science is the tool given us to interact with and understand the physical world, while Scripture is the tool given us primarily to interact with and understand God and our relationship with him, you seem to be making a fairly basic category error. Scripture is about God and his relationship with man, which naturally includes a description of both our nature and his, which naturally leads to a certain epistemological hierarchy with God and his perfect, objective word at the top, and us and our imperfect, subjective interaction with the physical world at the bottom. But that doesn’t mean that we confuse the top with the bottom and think that Scripture tells us more about the physical world than it does.

    Of course, it tells us that the physical world exists—which is more than you can rationally justify in terms of your own beliefs. It tells us that God is orderly and consistent and that all things hold together in him, so that we can expect uniformity in nature—which is more than you can rationally justify in terms of your own beliefs. It tells us that God created us to have dominion over the world and subdue it, and that we have rational faculties designed for this purpose, so inductive reasoning about the world is generally valid—which is more than you can rationally justify in terms of your own beliefs. So, as I said, Scripture provides a foundation for a workable and useful philosophy of science that actually rationally grounds all scientific endeavor (it doesn’t replace scientific endeavor; it grounds it). Your worldview has no such thing. You have no philosophy of science which can justify your belief in uniformity, or induction, or even the physical world. As Jim has pointed out, your beliefs about reality, and the standards you insist upon, are purely arbitrary. You keep changing the subject, but really this is the question you need to answer: why are you demanding that we be subject to your arbitrary, irrational standards?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  22. Brian

    I’m intrigued by the notion of scriptural primacy, the notion that scripture has anything at all to say about reality. It’s not at all obvious that any given scripture has primacy over any other let alone over science. They all make unsupported assertions, viz, that there is a non-spatiotemporal realm and that there exist non-spatiotemporal beings and that each scripture contains the commands or guidance of these beings, etc. To say that the scripture has any basis in an epistemology without independently demonstrating the existence of the beings referred to in the scripture and then further demonstrating that those beings approve of the text of the scripture is begging the question in the extreme.

  23. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Brian, I am not currently making a (direct) argument for the primacy of the Bible. I am simply stating the Christian epistemological position in response to Steve. If you’re interested in the argument I would make for the primacy of Scripture, I’d refer you to the second chapter of The Wisdom of God.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  24. Steve Zara

    Brian, I am not currently making a (direct) argument for the primacy of the Bible.

    Perhaps, then, as I ask on my blog, you would be happy to retract the following statements from a previous post:

    “wherever their [scientists] conclusions contradict the truth of Scripture, we can be certain that they are wrong”

    and “science is knowledge destroying” and “terminally flawed”

  25. Steve Zara

    Bnonn-

    Like James you are making a profound mistake.

    You are attempting to allow yourself some areas of unreason by saying that anyone who challenges your use of scripture is “scientific”, and that their “scientific worldview” has to be justified.

    That is wrong. I am not questioning your use of scripture and revelation from the point of view of a scientist (although I have put forward a scientific challenge for you)… I am questioning your use of scripture and revelation from the point of view of a sceptic. Scepticism is nothing more than wanting reliable evidence for what someone else says, and you have provided nothing.

    You and James are the one making extraordinary claims about the truth value of ancient literature. I am sceptical. It is up to you to provide evidence that will convince me of the truth of what you say. It is not reasonable to ask me to demonstrate that you are wrong.

  26. Steve Zara

    This really brings us back to the question Jim has repeatedly put to you, which you have avoided answering: How do you know the difference between a natural universe and a super-natural universe? What standards would you use that would not be completely arbitrary? You have no objective standards for deciding if we live in a strictly material world or in a supernatural world. Perhaps a supernatural world is partly open to understanding, and partly closed. And you assume that investigation will bring the answers—but how do you know that? It is an assumption.

    I haven’t been avoiding the question. It is not a question that makes any sense.

    Supernatural means beyond the laws of nature.

    The claim that some phenomenon is beyond any laws of nature is a very strange one indeed. It is not just a claim that some phenomenon can’t and can never be explained in terms of natural law – it isn’t just a claim about knowledge. It is a claim that a phenomenon is in reality above natural law. It is truly bizarre. Let’s see what this claim sounds like:

    “At no time in the future will any rational mind of any kind anywhere ever be able to provide a natural explanation for this phenomenon, because I know for certain that no such explanation is possible.”

    The idea that anyone can know that a phenomenon is supernatural does not make sense.

    Therefore, the only reasonable approach to the investigation of reality is to assume that what we observe follows natural laws.

    I am not making statements about the true nature of reality. I am trying to say that the natural/supernatural distinction is meaningless. There are phenomena we observe, and we have to decide how to investigate them. The assumption that the world actually can be rationally investigated is the way forward.

  27. James

    Hello Steve,

    1. You said: “Supernatural means beyond the laws of nature. ” That begs the question Steve. How do you know the laws of nature are not in themselves extra-natural (i.e. being created and up held by non-natural means)?

    2. Even Hawkings said that during the initial conditions for the hot big bang all known laws of physics break down. How does one investigate that? What natural laws will you use to reference that event?

    3. As far as your challenge. You know it’s apples and oranges. It’s like, how would the historic death of Lincoln predict the result of the Higgs Boson test/theory? Does it make that historic event any less true or factual? How does that make scientific truth any more dominate than historic truth?

    4. The bible can make some general predictions I believe – like the initial conditions of creation being beyond our understanding (which it is) or my other point/prediction – prove that the universe is self-sustaining. I predict that there will come a point on the sub-atomic level (we might already be there) where the laws of physics break down. Cause and effect as we know it will be lost. But these are general guesses, Scripture is not detailed on these subjects.

  28. Jonathan

    James-

    “The bible can make some general predictions I believe – like the initial conditions of creation being beyond our understanding (which it is)”

    That isn’t a prediction, it’s an assertion. An argument from incredulity and ignorance. We will NEVER understand how the universe came to exist? What makes you so sure?

    Besides- we don’t understand it right now– that doesn’t mean we won’t understand it in the future. Just think of all the things that we didn’t understand before that we can now explain: until the idea of nuclear fission was developed, everyone thought that the sun was young, instead of billions of years old as we now know it to be. Gaps in our knowledge get filled.

    “How do you know the laws of nature are not in themselves extra-natural (i.e. being created and up held by non-natural means)? ”

    There should be evidence of that, shouldn’t there, otherwise how could you make the assertion with any degree of assuredness? What is that evidence? Define “non-natural”. How can the non-natural and natural interact?

    Jonathan.

  29. Steve Zara

    James-

    I am not begging any question. You are the one making strange assertions that something can be extra-natural.

    So far, you have not provided any reason for anyone to believe that you have the technique to discern extra-natural phenomena. Perhaps you could explain how this could be done?

    Even Hawkings said that during the initial conditions for the hot big bang all known laws of physics break down. How does one investigate that? What natural laws will you use to reference that event?

    That has absolutely no relevance to the issue of the supernatural. Even if all knownlaws break down, that does not mean that there aren’t other unknown laws operating. Even if no laws were operating, it does not mean that there was anything real and supernatural there.

    (Actually, Hawking no longer believes this. The idea that there was a singularity is outdated)

    My test is perfectly reasonable. It certainly isn’t apples and oranges, as Bnonn has said explicitly in his writings not just that science and scripture are competing ways to truth (actually he says a lot worse), but that science has to give way to scripture. If it was apples and oranges, there would be no point of conflict between science and scripture. You can’t have it both ways.

    If you are going to put scripture in competition with science, you have to demonstrate that scripture can out-compete science. I am giving anyone who wants it the opportunity to do that. Failure to meet the challenge will be revealing.

  30. James

    Hey Steve,

    1. I believe you are begging the question, since the nature of the universe is the very thing in question. When I say a supernatural universe I mean one that is not either self-creating or self-sustaining. You, we, have no idea if the universe is either self-creating or self-sustaining. You may assume so, but we are free rationally to assume otherwise. What in the observation of the universe would cause you to assume strict materialism? Cause and effect? Order? Laws of Physics? The ability to at least partially understand these phenomena? Why wouldn’t these be features of a supernatural cosmos? How would you know? Compared to what? Your criterion would logically have to be arbitrary since this is the only universe we know, with no independent point of reference.

    2. I did ask you a question:

    “how would the historic death of Lincoln predict the result of the Higgs Boson test/theory? Does it make that historic event any less true or factual? How does that make scientific truth any more dominate than historic truth?”

    3. In other words how would the results of the Higgs Boson test falsify the historic nature or truth of Scripture? If not, then I see no controversy. And why would we expect Scripture to predict every possible discovery?

    4. A side note Steve, I had heard that this upcoming smashing of particles in this super Collider could in fact begin a chain reaction that could destroy the world. Is that theoretically possible?

  31. James

    Hello Jonathan:

    1. It is prediction and also an assertion. Like I said, they are guesses.

    2. My confidence is based in Scripture. The ground and precondition for an orderly universe and human rationality.

    3. My definition of a non-natural universe is one that is either not self creating or self sustaining. Or both.

    4. What in the observed universe would cause you to conclude that is self creating or self sustaining?

    5. Well first you would have to prove that the universe is “natural” before we can look at how the non-natural interacts with the “natural.”

    6. As far as us never knowing, how about this: “All our knowledge is but the knowledge of school children…we shall know a little more than we do now. But the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.”

    Folsing, Albrecht. Albert Einstein: A Biography. Viking, 1997.

  32. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Steve, it seems you’ve misconstrued the audience to whom a lot of my comments on this blog are directed. For example, on the basis that I am not making an argument for the primacy of the Bible here, you say,

    Perhaps, then, as I ask on my blog, you would be happy to retract the following statements from a previous post:

    “wherever their [scientists] conclusions contradict the truth of Scripture, we can be certain that they are wrong”

    and “science is knowledge destroying” and “terminally flawed”

    To be honest, I never knew you asked this, but that’s beside the point. Why would I retract these statements, which are directed to Christians in a discussion of the Christian view of science? More to the point, why would I retract them sans any argumentation from you to show that they are wrong? Although you quote them in a vacuum, that is not how they were made, of course. They are substantiated with reasoning. So I’m at a loss to explain why you’re asking me to take back something I said in a totally different context, to a totally different audience.

    Furthermore, the fact that I’m not currently making an argument for the primacy of Scripture doesn’t change the fact that I have made such an argument in the past. In fact, I made it in great detail. I wrote a book. It isn’t as if every time I make an assertion I have to rehash all the arguments I’ve previously made which back it up. It isn’t as if, when I say, “I’m not currently making an argument for the primacy of Scripture,” I am nullifying all the arguments I’ve made in the past and then have to remake them here, where they aren’t even relevant to the discussion.

    You are attempting to allow yourself some areas of unreason by saying that anyone who challenges your use of scripture is “scientific”, and that their “scientific worldview” has to be justified.

    If you’re defining “reason” as “empirical investigation”, then no doubt that’s true. But that isn’t what reason is. Scientific inquiry doesn’t exist in a philosophical vacuum, Steve. It relies on certain philosophical presuppositions, like the uniformity of nature. Coincidentally, I just wrote a post about this on Thinking Matters. If a scientist has no reason to believe in the uniformity of nature, then he is really being irrational about believing any scientific theories built on top of it, for example. Philosophy rationally grounds science; but only if we can know that this philosophy is true. It is not “unreason” to point out that a scientific worldview, like any other, requires solid foundations; and further, to point out that non-Christians cannot provide such foundations. I can see how this would be very problematic for you, so you’d want to dismiss it, but frankly that is naive and lazy. You’re welcome to put your head in the sand if you want, but it won’t do to then come here saying how unreasonable we are being about accepting certain scientific notions.

    I am questioning your use of scripture and revelation from the point of view of a sceptic. Scepticism is nothing more than wanting reliable evidence for what someone else says, and you have provided nothing.

    Well, again, you seem to have misconstrued the whole context of this discussion. We’re talking about the Trinity, remember. This is a Christian doctrine. There is absolutely no reason for a skeptic to accept it, and I am not pretending to even provide one. My purpose here is simply to show that a skeptic cannot refuse to accept it on grounds of internal contradiction. He is quite welcome to say it’s bunk on grounds that God doesn’t exist, or whatever—that is a totally different discussion; one which we aren’t having. However, as regards the charge of internal contradiction, Anderson’s MACRUE resolution is convincing; there can be no skeptical argument launched showing that the Trinity is a contradiction in terms.

    You and James are the one making extraordinary claims about the truth value of ancient literature. I am sceptical. It is up to you to provide evidence that will convince me of the truth of what you say. It is not reasonable to ask me to demonstrate that you are wrong.

    Again, just to be sure this sinks in: we are speaking within a Christian context. The Trinity is a Christian doctrine. Skeptical claims of self-contradiction are internal critiques. So obviously we are speaking as if Christianity is true and Scripture is the word of God. The criticism being made assumes this for the sake of argument. So I get to draw on all the Christian resources at my disposal to invalidate the criticism.

    The claim that some phenomenon is beyond any laws of nature is a very strange one indeed. It is not just a claim that some phenomenon can’t and can never be explained in terms of natural law – it isn’t just a claim about knowledge. It is a claim that a phenomenon is in reality above natural law. It is truly bizarre. Let’s see what this claim sounds like:

    “At no time in the future will any rational mind of any kind anywhere ever be able to provide a natural explanation for this phenomenon, because I know for certain that no such explanation is possible.”

    I’m not sure what’s so strange about this claim, unless you’ve presupposed philosophical naturalism. But why would you do that? After all, no one at any time, anywhere, could prove philosophical naturalism using science, could they?

    The assumption that the world actually can be rationally investigated is the way forward.

    What do you mean by “rationally investigated”? You seem to be precluding any kind of investigation other than empirical. That seems very strange. Why make that assumption? The whole point of Jim’s question was to show that your assumptions are unfounded, and your theory of reality arbitrary. You can’t very well hold us to your arbitrary standards, no matter how fond you may be of them.

    As regards the Higgs Challenge, I’ve already demonstrated why this is apples and oranges. Jim is correct here as well. Even if you (mis)interpreted some previous comments of mine about the relationship between science and Scripture, so as to support your challenge, I have explicitly clarified those comments now. The challenge is a strawman.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  33. Steve Zara

    Bnonn-

    Mike will probably handle this far better than I, but here goes.

    The challenge is not a straw man. You make serious claims about science. You say that it has to give way to scripture. You explictly state that science is no way to find truth, and that it is damaging to knowledge.

    If you are going to make claims for the primacy of scripture as a way of determining truth, I am going to take you up on those claims. I have done that with this challenge.

    Your statements about scripture were very plain to me. If you now wish to say that they were mistaken, or wish to re-phrase them for the record, then I will retract the challenge.

    I am not making any assumptions about the nature of reality. I am simply using proven tools for the investigation of reality. Science may be inconvenient for religious points of view as it does not include them within its framework. But how do you reliably investigate supposed religious truths?

    You are an empiricist. We all are! If you lose your car keys (assuming you drive), you look down the back of the sofa, where they have fallen before. You don’t go assuming from the start that they have been abducted to fairyland.

    That is all my approach is. It is all the scientific approach is. It is not assuming magic, because the assumption of magic blocks further investigation.

    James-

    You are missing the point again. I am not assuming anything about the true nature of the universe. I am simply asking how do we go about investigating it? If at any point we assume magic, that stops further investigation.

    It is all very well to claim that there might be things beyond nature. The real problem is to claim that you know there are. That is a seriously problematic claim.

    As for the LHC, I would be tempted to say … does the Bible say anything about it? But that would be mean. No – it isn’t going to destroy the world!

  34. Steve Zara

    Let me try and make my position clearer.

    What would you prefer if you were the victim of a crime… a police office who systematically looked for evidence in order to find the criminal, or one who stated that they had an inner conviction that the criminal could never be found?

    What if you had an illness… would you want the doctor to perform experiments and tests, carefully analyzed, or would you accept a claim that he had read an old book that was precious to him and from that he had a revelation about what your illness was?

    When it comes down to everyday life, almost all of us are rationalists most of the time, and we prefer the scientific method – because it works.

    In the end, this all comes down to a very simple question. Do we investigate the world, or don’t we? If the answer is “yes”, then that has to mean everything is open to investigation. There are no closed areas where our belief in holy words says “not here”. There is no halt to investigation because someone believes (without convincing argument) that there can never be natural answers.

    We have to be humble, and avoid thinking that there are short-cuts to an understanding of reality by what we consider to be direct links to a creator. That assumes we have a privileged position in creation for which there is no evidence other than our own hubris.

    So, we build large machines like the LHC to try and find out in ever more detail what is actually going on around us, in preference to trying to interpret millenia-old texts. I think this a truly noble venture.

    Are you with me and supportive of really trying to discover facts about the amazing reality we see around us? Or does scripture stand above all that?

  35. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Steve, what are you talking about? Have you even been reading our posts? Please pay attention; I am not going to repeat myself again—

    The challenge is not a straw man. You make serious claims about science. You say that it has to give way to scripture. You explictly state that science is no way to find truth, and that it is damaging to knowledge.

    Unarticulated equivocation. Science is no way to discover the ultimate truth about reality. That is not its purpose; it is Scripture’s. It is functionally impossible for science to achieve this (refer to the Einstein quote which James provided). Science is a tool for discovering operational truths about physical reality; Scripture is a tool given to discover ultimate truths about spiritual reality.

    If you are going to make claims for the primacy of scripture as a way of determining truth, I am going to take you up on those claims. I have done that with this challenge.

    Unarticulated equivocation. See above. I already explained this quite clearly.

    Your statements about scripture were very plain to me. If you now wish to say that they were mistaken, or wish to re-phrase them for the record, then I will retract the challenge.

    I already did. You can go ahead and retract the challenge any time now.

    I am not making any assumptions about the nature of reality.

    Patently false; see below.

    I am simply using proven tools for the investigation of reality.

    Unarticulated equivocation. You are using tools for the investigation of physical reality. Whether or not they are proven under your worldview remains to be seen.

    Science may be inconvenient for religious points of view as it does not include them within its framework.

    Why would this be inconvenient? If a given religious point of view is true, then the inconvenience would be to science; not vice versa. Assume Christianity is true for the sake of argument. Notice that under this assumption, Christianity is not inconvenienced if science assumes that it’s false, because it does not rely on science. Science, on the other hand, is massively inconvenienced because a great deal of time is wasted following nonsense theories, as science does rely on Christianity.

    But how do you reliably investigate supposed religious truths?

    Unarticulated equivocation and assumptions. What is meant by “investigate”? Why is “investigation” necessary to begin with? If religious truths are revealed by God, they are reliable by definition, and no investigation is necessary.

    You are an empiricist.

    False; no I’m not. Please make sure you understand the terms you’re using. Empiricism is self-refuting. On the same note—

    When it comes down to everyday life, almost all of us are rationalists most of the time

    False; no we aren’t, and you can’t have it both ways. Rationalism and empiricism are competing epistemological theories; a person can’t be both a rationalist and an empiricist. Please make sure you understand the terms you’re using. I am not a rationalist either.

    If you lose your car keys (assuming you drive), you look down the back of the sofa, where they have fallen before. You don’t go assuming from the start that they have been abducted to fairyland.

    Strawman. The fact that you seem to think that my position would logically require me to think the latter rather than the former simply indicates to me that you either haven’t read, or haven’t understood, pretty much anything I’ve said about that position. Christianity holds a high view of science. Science has a valid epistemological and metaphysical foundation within the Christian worldview, because we are able to know through Scripture that uniformity, induction, empirical investigation, and the like, are generally reliable and useful. Christians use science to ask questions about physical reality (like, “where are my keys?”). They use Scripture to ask questions about spiritual reality (like, “is there a soul?”). Christians are not confused about these things.

    That is all my approach is. It is all the scientific approach is. It is not assuming magic, because the assumption of magic blocks further investigation.

    Unarticulated equivocation, strawman, and question-begging. What is meant by “investigation”? What is the topic of investigation? Christianity does not posit magic; but it does draw a distinction between revealed truth and discoverable truth. If you insist that there is no revealed truth, and that all truth about reality whatsoever is discoverable through science, then you are simply begging the question by assuming your own position over against Christianity. You aren’t providing reasons to believe your position.

    It is all very well to claim that there might be things beyond nature. The real problem is to claim that you know there are. That is a seriously problematic claim.

    Question-begging and self-referential absurdity. It is only problematic to make this claim if you presuppose that there is no revealed truth. Furthermore, you are claiming to know that it’s problematic to know that there are things beyond nature. On what basis?

    In the end, this all comes down to a very simple question. Do we investigate the world, or don’t we? If the answer is “yes”, then that has to mean everything is open to investigation.

    Unsubstantiated assertion and self-referential absurdity. Why is everything open to investigation? Is the claim that everything is open to investigation open to investigation? Isn’t that self-refuting?

    There are no closed areas where our belief in holy words says “not here”. There is no halt to investigation because someone believes (without convincing argument) that there can never be natural answers.

    Question-begging. You’re assuming (a) that science can always provide answers; (b) that if it can’t there are no answers to be had; and (c) that convincing arguments for Christianity do not exist. All of these have yet to be proven.

    We have to be humble, and avoid thinking that there are short-cuts to an understanding of reality by what we consider to be direct links to a creator.

    Question-begging. You can’t even give an account of humility within a naturalistic worldview.

    That assumes we have a privileged position in creation for which there is no evidence other than our own hubris.

    Question-begging. You’re assuming that we don’t have a privileged position in creation and that no evidence exists. Both of these remain to be proven.

    Are you with me and supportive of really trying to discover facts about the amazing reality we see around us? Or does scripture stand above all that?

    Ironic. We aren’t the ones who are completely closed to the possibility of discovering certain things about reality.

  36. Brian

    Science is no way to discover the ultimate truth about reality. That is not its purpose; it is Scripture’s

    Unsubstantiated assertion. How do you know what scripture is for? Or even if it is for anything? The fact that science only gives tentative explanations and may never give us a total view of reality lends no support to scripture being anything other than a collection of myths, folk wisdom and group ethos of mid-east tribes.

    By the way bnnon, I took a few tries to get down your book on apologetics. I’ll give it a look and see what I make of it.

  37. Brian

    By the way Bnonn, what makes you claim there is an ultimate truth about reality? There may be or not be. But making this assertion in relation to science or scripture is question begging. Let’s wait until we find the ultimate purpose and if we do, let’s see if accords with your chosen scripture, and if it does, then you can make the claim. To act in any other way seems intellectually dishonest. On must look for the truth, not assume the truth. We all bring different biases to the table, but that doesn’t mean we can claim what we are looking for beforehand. For example, I personally see nothing more than material in the universe, all science backs this up. If there is something else this is to be shown.

  38. Steve Zara

    Bnonn-

    You don’t seem to be getting the point.

    I am not closed to anything. I just need what is invisible demonstrated before I start to consider it, and I want to know how you intend investigating it. Otherwise you are putting up a dividing line (natural/supernatural) without first showing me that such a division is even necessary. It is putting the cart before the horse.

    However, I am deeply saddened by your refusal to join in the scientific venture to learn about reality.

    I find it typical of your approach that because you think that I can’t explain humility in terms of naturalism (if you had asked, I could have had a go), you think that gives you the ability to declare supernaturalism valid. This means that you are considering your personal ability to concieve of something as the arbiter of reality. Centuries ago, people like you claimed that the movement of the planets required God’s will. There are still people who think that evolution requires God’s hand. There are still people, who, in spite of Wholer’s work centuries ago believe in vitalism.

    We really have to get over this hubris, and try and accept that the universe may not be subject to the limits of what we are able to understand and concieve of at a given time.

    Anyway, I see no progress here. Thanks for the discussion. You are welcome to post on my blog at any time.

    Regards

    Steve

  39. James

    Hey Steve,

    Well yes you are assuming something true about the universe. That it is strictly natural (i.e. self creating and self sustaining). And I’m not claiming that there is something “beyond nature” here, I’m suggesting that nature it’s self is may not “natural” (i.e. self creating and self sustaining). This is the thing Steve, you can not prove a “natural” universe and I can not prove a non-natural universe – both are assumed. Certainly, go about investigating it as you are, it seems to be working fairly well even though the scientific method often dead ends and produces false theories.

    See, a non-natural universe may in fact be open to at least partial (or even nearly fully) investigation and manipulation – and that is my point – we do not know if we are living in a “natural” universe. A supernatural universe ( i.e. one that is not self creating and self sustaining) may look and act exactly like the one we are in. Again – how would one know?

  40. Steve Zara

    James-

    I see progress!

    I put up the Higgs Challenge to indicate that science is working more than just fairly well. It works astonishingly well, and has given us practical and useful results, and I find it deeply troubling for anyone to say that such an important part of intellectual life should be in any way hampered by religious belief.

    I have absolutely no problem with people hypothesising that there is something beyond nature – the supernatural.

    What I have a problem with is anyone claiming without hard evidence that something is beyond nature and that they know details about that thing.

    To put it in a Douglas Adams kind of way, it is the difference between thinking that God is a possibility and claiming to have His telephone number.

    You can’t prove that the scientific method will get you to ultimate truth. But that does not mean it is intellectually justified to pick any arbitrary system that one believes to be self-asserting and claim that this is even remotely anything to do with the truth.

    The results of doing that lead to what I consider to be an intellectual waste. I see a good mind like Bnonn’s struggling with matters like the Trinity. Good minds are rare, and should not (in my view) be wasted in this way.

    So, you can hypothesize all you like about things being beyond nature, but that is to multiply entities unnecessarily unless you can provide hard evidence. The natural and the supernatural aren’t equally valid possibilities for describing the world, as we have very good reason to believe that the natural exists.

  41. James

    Steve,

    I will try again! ; ) You also can not prove that this is a “natural” universe (i.e. that it is self creating and self sustaining). This also would be just as arbitrary as assuming that it isn’t.

    Second, unless you can prove that said universe is self-creating you have no idea how many entities would be necessary. Again you are assuming…

  42. steve zara

    James-

    Good try! But it doesn’t work.

    While we are unsure about the requirements of the universe, it is not reasonable to involve additional entities

  43. steve zara

    Sorry James – my browser posted the response before I had finished.

    Let me try again.

    While we are unsure about the explanation of the universe, it is not reasonable to say that the additional entities required by one explanation actually exist.

    Let me go back to an analogy I like to use.

    You have lost your car keys.

    They could have gone down the back of the sofa, or they could have been stolen by fairies.

    Even if the “stolen by fairies” explanation was reasonable – even if you lived in a world with fairies, it still is not reasonable for you to say that happen to know personally the fairy who actually stole it.

    This is all question begging.

    Even if the universe required creating, that does not mean you can get away with claiming that you know who did it and why. Every step has to be justified – that the creator is a supernatural being, that it is a God, that it is your God.

    Incidentally, please tell me you don’t follow all of Bnonn’s logic – you aren’t also a creationist?

  44. windy

    “The epistemological primacy of Scripture”

    How can scripture have epistemological primacy over scientific evidence? I think you have previously argued that it’s because science can’t justify itself from first principles, it has to rest on something else, or something like that. But scientific evidence is only a subset of the kind of everyday evidence we derive from using our senses and other tools, noticing that the world appears to exist, things like trees, houses, people exist… How do you know that there is such a thing as Scripture, that you can physically open a book and learn stuff about God, without relying on the assumption that your senses can give you some information about your surroundings in an existing, physical world?

  45. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Windy, as I think I said earlier in this comment stream, these questions aren’t really on topic. I would direct you to chapter 2 of my book for answers; it’s not very long, and you can download it in PDF or ODT using the link at the top of the page. Briefly, though: I deny that knowledge comes directly through sense experience. I affirm that knowledge comes directly from God, but is often mediated through sense experience.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  46. James

    Steve said:

    While we are unsure about the explanation of the universe, it is not reasonable to say that the additional entities required by one explanation actually exist.

    Again, then why is it reasonable to assume a mind when we find a cave drawing? And again, until you can show that the universe is self-generated you can not know if a mind was necessary or not. You can assume all you like Steve – but assumption is not fact.

    And of course we do claim to know who created and why. The Creator communicated this to us.

  47. Havok

    James: Again, then why is it reasonable to assume a mind when we find a cave drawing?

    I’d have thought it was because we know people can paint drawings, and no of no other, simpler explanation for those found. After all, we know people who draw exist. In fact, I’ve even been one, from time to time, though you’ll have to take my word for it.

    James: And again, until you can show that the universe is self-generated you can not know if a mind was necessary or not. You can assume all you like Steve – but assumption is not fact.

    I’m not sure Steve has ever stated that, categorically, the universe is most certainly self generated, and that a mind was most certainly not necessary, and that he knows how it came about.
    What I do hear (well, read) is both you and Bnonn stating categorically that, not only does the universe have to be created and not self sustaining, but that you know the address and telephone number of the guy who started it all and drops in from time to time to give it a tune up. The only evidence you have produced is science’s lack of an answer (“I don’t know” is perfectly legitimate, when you don’t actually know, by the way) and “scripture” which was written by men in ancient history, when superstitious thought was rife, and gods and deities abounded in the world.

    James: And of course we do claim to know who created and why. The Creator communicated this to us.

    You make that claim, and claim the communication is the bible, as far as I can tell. Now, what evidence do you have to say that the bible is the word of your particular deity, who was also responsible for creating and sustaining the universe, apart from “it feels like the truth to me”.
    Excuse me if I remain a little bit sceptical of your claim until you produce further evidence to support it :-)

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