God, Elves, and Silly Atheists

Atheist apologist John Loftus just posted the following on his blog Debunking Christianity, with the title “Technically Speaking We Cannot Prove or Disprove the Existence of Trolls, Fairies or Elves”:

My first impression of this argument: how silly; my second impression: how utterly silly.

The argument presupposes the premise we are only entitled to believe in the existence of beings whose existence we can in someway demonstrate or prove. Just as we cannot prove “the existence of trolls, fairies or elves,” and therefore should not believe in their existence; so we cannot prove the existence of a transcendent Creator and therefore should not believe in his existence. As one who loves The Lord of the Rings and the fairy tales of George MacDonald, I am reluctant to concede that elves, fairies, trolls, dragons, balrogs, and Istari have never enjoyed, or do not presently enjoy, objective existence … but I won’t push the matter. After all, we all know that the elves sailed away to the Undying Lands on the last ships and therefore are not to be found within the circles of the world. Perhaps sometime in the future explorers will come upon the ruins of Imladris or Gondolin, at which point I will not so humbly jump up and cry, “Aha! Told you so!” But until that day, I will grudgingly acknowledge that elves and balrogs are inventions of humanity’s mythological imagination.

But anyone who puts the Transcendent Creator into the category of mythological beings simply has no idea what “God” means in the Christian theological and spiritual tradition. Not for nothing did St Maximus the Confessor speak of God as beyond being: “For since it is indispensable for us to recognize the difference, in truth, between God and creatures, the affirmation of what is above being must be the negation of all in the things that are, just as the affirmation of existing things must be a negation of what is above being” (Quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 89). God is not a finite object within the universe. His existence can be neither proven nor disproven by any method scientists might devise. The universe might not have been, and if it had never been, God’s divine existence would not have been diminished one whit, just as his existence did not gain one whit by creating the universe. This is the whole transcendent point of the dogma of the creatio ex nihilo. One might forgive a college freshman for not understanding what classical Christian theologians signify by the word “God”; but an atheist philosopher like Loftus should know better.

David B. Hart accurately states the matter:

To speak of “God” properly, then—to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baháí, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something poised over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. …

Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God—especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side—is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact. …

At a trivial level, one sees the confusion in some of the more shopworn witticism of popular atheism: “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden,” for instance, or “All people are atheists in regard to Zeus, Wotan, and most other gods; I simply disbelieve in one god more.” … Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found. … God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for either photons or (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principle; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that can and must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. … Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us. (The Experience of God, pp. 30, 32, 33-34)

I honestly do not know how to respond to the silly charge that believing in God is epistemologically equivalent to believing in elves. Galadriel is not pleased.

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122 Responses to God, Elves, and Silly Atheists

  1. Steven says:

    I agree that the poster’s argument was silly (I would have called it stupid, or puerile), but I don’t see that he is making the mistake you suggest. His mistake was assuming the professor reasoned thus:

    (i) God’s existence cannot be disproven.
    (ii) Therefore we ought (have sufficient reason) to believe in God.

    If this person had taken a philosophy course before, or a basic communications course, or knew the English language, he would have been able to see that such was *not* the reasoning of the professor.

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    • Fr. Aidan was (methinks) referencing Loftus, the apologist blogger who should know better, not the person who took the course and left the Facebook status reproduced above. Loftus added the bit about fairies and trolls, implicitly suggesting the status was right on target, when you are correct, it displays colossal ignorance and misunderstanding.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Steven, I’m not persuaded yet that I have misread our skeptical college student, but it’s possible. It’s not clear to me that your interpretation of how the student interpreted his philosophy professor is correct.

      If I have misread the citation, it’s because, as Corvus Marinus notes, because I read ot in light of the title given it by John Loftus. It’s really Loftus (of at least the Loftus of my imagination) that I am engaging.

      Persuade me. 🙂

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Steven, I have tweaked my article to hopefully make clear that my criticisms are more directed against Loftus’s interpretation of the student’s complaint than against the student himself (especially since his words are open to different interpretations). Take a look and see if my article reads a bit more clearly.

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  2. Dante Aligheri says:

    Sigh. Just yesterday, I was reading Bill Nye (“the Science Guy” – yes, I loved him as a kid and still do; wish his show was still on the air) once again worrying about a new generation of creationists who would somehow be the end of education in America. I’m not a big of ID or creationism either, personally. I absolutely want evolution taught in schools. Not that I want to get sidetracked on that issue. But…it seems to me we – and Bill Nye, too – should be just as worried about a rising class of individuals who hold unthinking sentiments like this (without labeling this individual in particular) where they refuse to take a class or take an idea seriously because the professor might discuss something he or she doesn’t want to talk about nor be introduced to knowledge which might disabuse some misconceptions. When he reaches Week 3, disagrees with the professor’s reasoning, after, and only after, taking them seriously and without bias, then by all means courteously (which, given the corrosive language of his post, might not be possible) and rationally sit down and talk about it.

    As far as I could tell, in the student’s first mistake, all the professor was trying to say in his statement (if this is what he said) was that believing in God was not an irrational proposition and could be rationally defended. He was not saying that in itself was a proof, but rather it should be taken seriously (which this student did not do). Alas, even entertaining that possibility was not given a chance.

    But the student, definitely unwittingly since this was not the crux of his point, also made the same category mistake that Fr. Kimel pointed out. He said the professor wanted to prove the “existence of a god” – which is a painfully awkward phrasing, which I doubt the professor actually used. The student possibly, without realizing the import of the change he made, downgraded “God” to “a god.” But that is precisely the point – namely, the difference between “God” and “a god,” an entity existing in the universe alongside other entities.

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    • brian says:

      Would that Bill Nye was as troubled by the complete ignorance of metaphysics that underlies modern pedagogy. Problem is that people are convinced by the pragmatic success of technology of the importance of science; they do not recognize the mystery of existence or the trajectory of human desire, nor the difference between hope and optimism — hence, they think they can make do without the “abstruse arguments” of the philosophers.

      Scientists are usually both dim about metaphysics and arrogant about their stupidity. They absorb materialist premises and think science vindicates such a stance. Then they dismiss all forms of evidence and experience that fall outside their methodology and scoff at philosophers as those who propose castles in the air without testing them against reality.

      Nice poem, btw, but I have to read the Comedy through George MacDonald’s lenses . . .

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  3. prinzler says:

    Does the god of infinite actuality intervene or have any effect in our universe? If yes, then can’t those effects and interventions be investigated and demonstrated like the effects or presence of fairies?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great question! It touches on the heart of the mystery of the interaction of divine agency and creaturely agency. But think about the notion of intervention. It immediately places God outside creation, which is precisely what deism does: God is the watchmaker who winds up the world, steps back, and watches it run–and presumably he can intervene and tinker with the watch if something goes wrong. I’m sure you would agree that this is a silly notion; but I suggest this is how most of us think about the relationship between the Creator and the world. I wrote a series a while back that you may find of interest. It begins with this article: http://goo.gl/UE3bSQ.

      If God is as radically transcendent to his creation as Christians believe, what would an “effect” of divine agency look like? God, after all, is actively sustaining everything in existence at every moment. Nothing happens apart from the divine presence and agency, yet in a real sense he makes no difference to the world. That’s because what he does as Creator is to give the world being, and that’s not something that scientists can measure.

      I’ll write more tomorrow. Right now I’m off to bed.

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      • prinzler says:

        I think I understand. Because God is holding existence together, so to speak, that is something that cannot be measured as in a scientific experiment. One clarification, though: is God holding existence together actively and always, or is that something that happened once and doesn’t require maintenance, so to speak?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Prinzler, it’s not that there is “something” that is holding existence together; there is “no thing” holding existence together. 🙂 As John Scotus Eriugena expresses it:

          We believe that he made all things of of nothing [2 Macc 7.28], unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said of understood–is not unreasonably said to be “nothing” through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity.

          This kind of paradoxical language is necessary to make clear to everyone, including most especially those of us who are Christians, that when we speak of God, we really do not comprehend this Mystery we are talking about.

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          • prinzler says:

            To let the other shoe drop, my questions about God sustaining existence and intervening are pointed towards this: to the extent that God doesn’t intervene but merely sustains, science may not be able to say anything, but, then, neither would anyone else. I don’t see how some conclusion about the God who merely sustains would be beyond science, broadly construed as a method for verifying conclusions (which includes logic). To the extent that God intervenes, then science would be able to draw conclusions.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          The question that immediately comes to mind (at least to my mind) is: But what about miracles?” Can’t they be studied as an effect of divine agency? McCabe argues that we should not think of miracles as interventions within the creaturely order: “God, thinks Aquinas, cannot literally intervene in the universe because he is always there—just as much in the normal, natural run of things as in the resurrection of Christ or in any other miraculous event” (pp. 101-102). The language of “intervention” presupposes that God stands alongside the world in some way; but that is a wrong way to think of God’s relationship to his creation.

          What then is a miracle? It is the overriding or suspension of natural causes in such a way that God “himself produces their normal effects or effects beyond their power” (p. 101). So let’s consider an example—the resuscitation of the daughter of Jairus. The physicians have examined the young woman and have declared her dead. All cardiological neurological activity has stopped. (I know that’s not in the story, but just play along for a few secs.) Jesus comes into the room, speaks a word, and suddenly she awakens. The monitors start beeping and going wild. Now what would a scientist say? I presume he would announce that the young woman’s resuscitation is an event for which he has no natural explanation—at this present time. He would assume, as a matter of principle, that at some time in the future science will be able to explain this unexplainable phenomenon. What the scientist cannot do, precisely because his science methodologically excludes divine agency, is declare, “God has supernaturally brought the young woman back to life.”

          The same reasoning applies to the resurrection of Jesus, as Dante points out in his comment. Let’s hypothesize that recording cameras had been set up in Jesus’ tomb. Suddenly the corpse begins to glow and then abruptly disappears in a blinding burst of energy. The tomb is now empty. Okay, is this a divine act of resurrection that inaugurates the new creation, as Christians declare, or has the corpse been teleported to the starship Enterprise circling around the earth? I imagine that a scientist, qua scientist (perhaps following the methodology of David Hume), will find the latter possibility more probable than the former. So what is there for scientists to investigate? How do they identify, distinguish, and study the effects of divine agency?

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          • prinzler says:

            The scientist would look for evidence to confirm one hypothesis or another as well as gather as much data as possible, which can also influence hypothesis formation. I don’t see the problem. Remember, all that science contributes here, and all science need contribute, is a method for verifying results, for making sure that a mistake hasn’t been made, that one isn’t fooling oneself, etc.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        In an essay on St Thomas Aquinas, Herbert McCabe writes:

        Thomas Aquinas thought that God created a world with its own order, with its own natural causes within it. So we can explain the characteristic behaviour of one sort of thing by referring to the behaviour of another kind of thing within creation. … For this reason, he thought that there was no need for scientists to bring God into their scientific explanations. God is simply presupposed to be at the heart of the existence of the whole world that the scientist studies. It is quite true that God causes the kettle to boil, as he causes everything, but the scientist is interested in the natural created causes that God uses to bring about this effect. Physicists may well be driven to ask, ‘What is the explanation of there being anything at all instead of nothing at all?’, but if they ask this, they are no longer doing physics. (Faith Within Reason, p. 101)

        Also see William Carroll’s essay “Creation, Evolution, and Thomas Aquinas.”

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    • Dante Aligheri says:

      As far as I understand it, being itself and “pure act” (as a Thomist might say) cannot “intervene” in created reality as that would imply there could be a natural state, without the intervention, without constant action and “life” on the part of Being. So, no, I wouldn’t say that God at least in the classical model “intervenes” in the sense of reaching down or out into something else. God acts or rather simply is (not even “is in” but simply “is”) a single, continuous act from the beginning of creation until the end of time – and, in fact, before and afterwards, in the life of the Trinity. God would have to do so because Being has no experience of time, except for divine procession, as if there was a “now and then” or “here and not there.” Fr. Freeman’s blog, I think, does a far better job than myself at expunging the “two-storey universe.”

      On the other hand, yes, supernatural intervention as usually seen could be, in theory, investigated. So, St. Paul could say that if Jesus in the actual flesh – that is, in empirical history, as real as Julius Caesar – was not raised, then the faith is in vain. Death has not been slain. Yet, that does not in itself say anything about the existence or non-existence of God nor His classical properties as understood by “natural revelation,” as it were, demonstrable by world religions everywhere except that the Trinity and those things known only by Christian revelation were invalidated. In that sense, Christianity has staked claims in real history.

      On the other hand (in a Tevye kind of way), other “interventions” such as the parting of the Red Sea or stopping of the sun (which actually, in the Bible, refers to an eclipse, a “turning off” and not stopping in motion) could be seen as part of divine foreknowledge from the beginning (still a fudgy term) without being God doing one thing (creation) and then doing another. God “talking” to Abraham would not, from God’s view, be temporally different than God “talking” to Moses – which probably calls for some kind of understanding about Platonic-angelic mediation both in creation and revelation (found some interesting stuff on that in Second Spring, the online journal) or simply Moses and Abraham encountering that same changeless spiritual reality and then recounting based on their changing perceptions, much as we experience the profound in everyday nature or the post-biblical saints have described it.

      The big kicker would be the Incarnation which involves an intervening movement in the Godhead itself. Here I am at a loss except to say that, from our perspective, it looks like “timey-wimey” stuff (to steal from David Tennant) but not from God’s. Probably one could say creation and Incarnation is the same act, which has some interesting implications given that creation and Incarnation are so closely intertwined (see Kimel’s previous post on the baptism), but I can’t answer this question. There was an essay I read not long ago about God’s energies and time from a Dr. Bradshaw at the University of Kentucky that might be of interest.

      Hope this helps, although I find the matter bewildering and honestly am simply repeating what I’ve encountered without plumbing its depths by any means.

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  4. Sammy says:

    In 1895 Michael Cleary of County Tipperary, Ireland accidentally killed who he believed to be a faerie changeling:

    Michael attempted to force-feed his wife, throwing her down on the ground before the kitchen fireplace and menacing her with a burning piece of wood. Bridget’s chemise caught fire, and Michael then threw lamp oil on Bridget. The witnesses were unclear as to whether she was already dead by this point. Michael kept the others back from her body as it burned, insisting that she was a changeling and had been for a week previously, and that he would get his wife back from the fairies.

    The court, however, believed that the creature who was immolated that night was, in fact, his wife, Bridget, and thus sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment for manslaughter.

    However, they could’ve been wrong. It sounds to me as though the court was packed with faerie changeling unbelievers. It might have been a faerie changeling after all. If you are right about Yahweh, then it’s just as feasible that Michael Cleary was right about faerie changelings.

    I honestly do not know how to respond to the silly charge that believing in God is epistemologically equivalent to believing in elves.

    Perhaps you don’t, but still, I’d like you to explain it to me, as precisely as you can, why Michael Cleary’s belief in faerie changelings is not epistemologicially equivalent from belief in Zeus, Allah, Yahweh, or Santa and his elves.

    Prima facie, I’d say the reason why you don’t know how to respond is because you can’t explain how it is epistemologically different, you just *need* it to be, really badly, so you simply assert that it is. Unfortunately, merely asserting something to be the case does not make it so.

    If you can’t explain what the epistemological difference is, maybe there’s a good reason for that. Maybe there isn’t one?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Sammy, the critical difference, I think, between faerie changelings and God, the maker of heaven and earth, is the divine infinity coupled with the act of creation ex nihilo. Faeries, if they exist, are finite beings. They have a nature that can be specified, and it is this nature that demarcates them from other beings. Ditto for Santa. We all know that he lives at the North Pole. He has some remarkable abilities—he can make himself small enough to slide down chimneys but large enough to allow small children to sit on his lap at shopping malls; but he is still a finite being.

      But none of this can be said of the divine Creator, at least as that Creator is apprehended and confessed by historic Christianity. Contrary to the Greek philosophical tradition, which judged that an infinite personal being was nonsensical, Christian theologians have taught that the divine Creator is infinite and thus radically different from everything he has made. This is what we mean when we speak of both his transcendence and immanence: God is both beyond everything and intimately present to everything, for he is the source and sustainer of all creaturely existence. In him we live and move and have our being, etc., etc.

      Let’s say that we wanted to scientifically investigate the claim that Santa really does exist. How would we go about it? The first thing we would probably do is mount an expedition to the North Pole. We would look everywhere. We would use the best scientific tools to attempt to find his workshop. We might set up listening and movement devices and cameras, just as we might do if we were searching for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. Perhaps we might employ satellite imaging. And after years and years of research and investigation, using the most advanced scientific instruments (make them as advanced as you like), we would finally announce to the world that we were 99.99% certain that Santa does not exist, as we could find no evidence whatsoever for his existence. Does that sound reasonable to you, Sammy?

      Okay, now what about God? How would we go about looking for him? The first thing we might do is to ask various Christian theologians to describe this being. “We can’t,” they reply; he is infinite and thus utterly incomprehensible to the minds of finite rational creatures. “Where is he?” we ask. They reply, “Everywhere and nowhere. As we said, he’s infinite, both utterly transcendent to his creation and intimately immanent within his creation. He is the source of being itself.” We keep asking our scientific questions, and we keep getting mysterious, paradoxical answers. Eventually, I suggest, we will finally come to the conclusion that we cannot scientifically research the question of the existence of this divine Creator. And so we announce to the world, “We can neither confirm nor disconfirm the existence of God, because the infinite Creator of the universe (if he “exists”) is not a being within the universe.”

      How’s that?

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      • Sammy says:

        So, I want to make sure I understand the explanation of your epistemological claim:

        1) Faerie changelings, Santa and his elves, and Zeus, are supposedly all finite beings, where Yahweh is supposedly an infinite being [ditto for Allah].

        2) Objective data could be collected on finite beings that can be investigated scientifically [tho I’m not sure this holds true for Zeus], whereas infinite beings do not seem to leave any objective data around for scientists to find.

        3) Because the scientific establishment rejects the existence of faerie changelings and Santa and his elves, that means that I can justify rejecting them. But since scientists can’t seem to find any objective data on infinite beings to analyze, therefore, I can make up any ol’ warrant for justifiability that I want to.

        Remember that epistemology pertains to how one can justifiably said to “know” something. Can one justify claiming to “know” something in the absence of data? That’s what’s at issue here.

        Mistake #1 is neglecting Allah. How can you justify accepting one supposedly infinite being while rejecting another? This is clearly a case of special pleading.

        Mistake #2 is assuming that whether a being is finite or infinite makes any difference to scientific inquiry. If a being leaves “forensic” data behind, then that data can be analyzed. It just boils down to data.

        Mistake #3 is assuming the scientific establishment rejects faerie changelings for a different reason than it rejects Yahweh. Concocting this fiction that reasonable people reject faerie changelings, Santa and his elves, and Zeus because of careful grant-funded studies, each of which generated a 99.99% certainty that the character in question did not exist. This, of course, is a glorious fiction. The existence of gods, faeries and Santa have all been rejected for the simple reason that there’s never been any objective data left behind by any of these beings, finite or otherwise, to analyze. Scientists, understandably, take the same consistent, “wait and see” approach to all claims, regardless of whether infinite being are supposedly involved or not. They consistently reject claims until they are forced to accept them by data.

        And mistake #4 is the special pleading involved in rejecting the existence of faerie changelings, Santa and his elves, and Zeus based upon the paucity of data, meanwhile accepting Yahweh (bot NOT Allah???), again, based upon the same paucity of data!

        See, the core problem is that you approach the existence of faerie changelings, Zeus, Allah, and Santa and his elves (regardless of whether they’re infinite or not, mind you) with a skeptical “reject until forced to accept” approach, BUT, inconsistently, you approach ONLY the existence of Yahweh with a polar opposite attitude of “accept until forced to reject.”

        Hans Halvorson, a xian philosopher and mathematician at Princeton, in this Veritas Forum debate with Sean M. Carroll admitted to exactly this during a moment of authentic reflection:

        Moderator: [39:25] “What do you see as the biggest weakness of your worldview in terms of logical coherence, and also what is the most difficult aspect for you to live out your worldview in real life?

        Halvorson: “There is a challenge intrinsic to a religion based on some sort of revelation…The challenge is that revealed religions, religions where you had a revelation that occurs historically and is not ongoing…If you take the religion seriously, that means you have to come to the ‘data’ [revelation] that they’ve passed down to you with an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ [accept until forced to reject] attitude…

        And that is why you special plead for Yahweh, but not Allah or faeries. It’s because you have inconsistently reversed the burden of proof in your mind only for Yahweh. This has nothing to do with epistemology or finite vs. infinite btw, but only, as Halvorson said, the biased way you approach claims about Yahweh, which is the polar opposite of the way you approach other claims.

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        • brian says:

          Sammy,

          Unfortunately, I am at work and cannot properly respond to your comments. All your comments presuppose a particular mindset that frames epistemological questions in a certain way. No doubt, you will consider this the only rational way to proceed, but those who hold other views may not grant that. The difference between finite and infinite being is more complex than you present it. In the wake of nominalism and various other elements that make up the early modern perspective, being was understood to be univocal. Hence, in a way, one could claim that the difference between a creature and a supreme being was quantitative, even if the high end was infinite. However, the older understanding was not univocal. The being of God was understood to be so different that it was sometimes thought better to say that God was “beyond being” or even “non-existent” if one was going to construe existence in terms of the being we encounter in our experience of the world.

          In any event, you don’t have to agree with this and obviously, you won’t, but recognize that you will have to address the truth claims of this alternative view in terms that it will accept, not terms you impose as the only ones that warrant rationality.

          Also, note, the difference between a metaphysical notion of an absolute ground of being beyond contingency is significant. Silly jibes about Zeus or assertions that Yahweh or Allah involves special pleading miss the point.

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          • prinzler says:

            “you will have to address the truth claims of this alternative view in terms that it will accept, not terms you impose as the only ones that warrant rationality.”

            Is it even hypothetically possible, then, to argue that the alternative view is not rational when one is limited to the terms that the alternative view will accept? If it is possible to argue that the alternative view is not rational and do so in a way that the alternative view will accept, can you outline what that might look like in general, or give an example?

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          • Sammy says:

            Thanks for your reply, Brian, but again, let’s rehearse exactly what the point is once again: epistemology has to do with how YOU can justify saying you know something. The source of the evidence, whatever that might be, is tangential, because epistemology pertains exclusively to how HUMANS handle evidence.

            It sounds to me like you’re saying that IF the source of the evidence (or lack of it) comes (or does not come) from an infinite being, then that constitutes justification for YOU to justify conclusions that would be considered unorthodox (crazy) given any other supposed source. So the point is, as soon as the topic turns to epistemology, NOW it’s about what YOU, a human being, is doing, NOT what is (or is not) going on around you.

            If YOU are inconsistent in what YOU do with evidence, then somewhere YOU are doing a bad job epistemologically. And if YOU have to plead for special exceptions to account for YOUR inconsistencies, then YOU are doing a bad job. What the special pleading is for is irrelevant to whether or not YOU are doing a bad job epistemologically.

            So, far from silly jabs, I’m asking you to account for why, in all the world, it looks like you’re epistemologically doing a bad job. You can wax eloquent for hours about how Yahweh is such a foreign sort of being and such a complex and incoherent sort of concept that “epistemology fails,” but that just sounds like an excuse for why YOU are doing a bad job epistemologically by jumping to (increasingly) unjustifiable conclusions. Rationality is not as plastic as you seem to imply, and epistemology has to do with setting limits on those things. In any other field of discourse, you would take self-contradictory and incomprehensible claims as grounds to reject, but when it comes to Yahweh, you just bend that evidence to serve other ends, which in itself could be a poster-child for bad epistemology.

            Then, of course, there’s the meta discussion about how you, or anyone has ever been epistemological secure in saying any of these claims about Yahweh’s supposed complexity and incomprehensibility are justifiable. This is complicated by the fact that all these same claims are made by Muslims about Allah too.

            You say christians are not doing a bad epistemological job. I’m asking for a defense of that job. I’m waiting for one, as none has so far been attempted by either you or the priest.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Hi, Sammy. I’ve been away all day and just returned home. I wanted to briefly address one of your arguments. You write:

          But since scientists can’t seem to find any objective data on infinite beings to analyze, therefore, I can make up any ol’ warrant for justifiability that I want to. Remember that epistemology pertains to how one can justifiably said to “know” something. Can one justify claiming to “know” something in the absence of data? That’s what’s at issue here.

          I think I’ll go out on a limb here and gladly acknowledge that most Christians do not believe that they can demonstrate the existence of God according to the empirical criteria used by scientists. I know that some believe, especially those in the scholastic tradition, that we can demonstrate the existence of a divine Creator through philosophical argument. I do not presently find these arguments to be probative, but they may simply be because of my own intellectual defects. But to make it even more frustrating for you, I do not believe I am under some kind of rational obligation to apply your empirical, scientific criteria to the question of the existence of an infinite Creator. For the reasons already adduced, scientific reason cannot have an opinion one way or another on the existence of an infinite Creator. Once the question of a transcendent origin is raised, it has no choice but to admit “That is outside my provenance” and thus remain silent.

          So when you go on to insist that I cannot “know,” according to your criteria, whether God exists, I can only shrug my shoulders and reply, “So what?” Why in the world should I play according to your rules? By what right do you impose your restricted understanding of rationality upon Christians? I have already stated that an infinite Creator transcends in the world in such a way that science can never devise an empirical method or mathematical equation that can demonstrate the existence of God or his presence in the world. Heck, as Alvin Plantinga long ago pointed out, neither science nor philosophy can prove the existence of other minds; but we go ahead and assume their existence anyway. Plantinga believes that belief in God may be properly described as “basic.” You’re welcome to enter the list with Plantinga, but if you do, you had better double-check the tensile strength of your lance.

          It is also the case that science, qua science, cannot address ethical questions; but that sure doesn’t stop folks, e.g., from making all sorts of ethical claims that they believe should bind human conscience and norm human behavior. Ditto for aesthetic claims.

          Now I do not have advanced philosophical training, and that is no doubt evident in what I have written; but I have enough human living under my belt to not be intimidated. You tell me that I need data to justify my belief in the existence of God. I presume by “data” you mean stuff that any scientist would accept, stuff that presumably can be measured and analyzed in some way. I admit that I have no such data. Again, so what?

          I do not claim to know that God exists, at least not in the way that you define human knowing. But I believe that he does exist, and I have staked my life on that belief. Am I acting irrationally? Only according to what I believe is an arbitrary, dogmatic, and ultimately superficial construal of human rationality. All of my 63 years experience as a human being cries out against it.

          Human life is filled with risk and existential commitment. I know the ultimate despair, nihilism, and destruction that atheism ultimately generates. I have decided not to live my life that way. As Pascal observed, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” There is a kind of knowing that is personal, poetic, and intuitive, more akin to the apprehension of beauty than the measuring of the physicist. This knowing is not irrational, but it is different than the knowing of the scientist or empiricist.

          A year ago I shared some of my reflections on this question in this article: “God, Jerry Coyne, and the Unread David B. Hart.” You may wish to take a look.

          I have to run now. I may be able to return to the rest of your comment later this evening. If not, I’ll try to write more sometime tomorrow.

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          • prinzler says:

            Aidan: I think you mean that, if you *knew* God existed, that knowledge would rest on some sort of evidence, sufficient in amount and quality for that knowledge; but if you *believe* in God, then you’re basing your belief on something other than evidence. Can you say what that is? And, can you offer a reason why that thing is a proper thing on which to base belief?

            Also, aren’t belief and knowledge both claims about reality? Is there any difference between them other than one (presumably) rests on evidence and the other doesn’t?

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          • Sammy says:

            Thanks for your reply. Forgive me, for I fear that I have not been sufficiently clear.

            Most of what you have said falls under the rubrick of personal beliefs, opinions, feelings, and choices, and that’s fine. You are free to choose to accept anything you want as provisionally true with or without epistemic warrant. I’m not here to impose some sort of tyranny of what others are or are not allowed to accept. Hence my general lack of frustration and indifference to the tensile strengths of related lances.

            You wrote:

            You tell me that I need data to justify my belief in the existence of God…I do not claim to know that God exists, at least not in the way that you define human knowing.

            I *never* asked you to justify your beliefs, although that’s mostly what I’ve received, also from Brian.

            I DID, however, ask you to justify the claims of epistemological non-equivalency in the last sentence of your post — a very different subject!

            Can we at least agree on what I have, and continue, to ask for? If there is any frustration, it would be over this.

            Specifically, I want to know upon what basis you can conceivably justify claiming that believing in Yahweh is not epistemologically equivalent to believing in the woodland folk. To me, that sounds like saying “enjoying peanut butter is not equivalent to enjoying jelly.” How is one to justify that the enjoyment of one food is somehow fundamentally different from the enjoyment of another? Of how many types of “enjoyment” is a human being capable? And how are we to differentiate between these different sorts of “enjoyments”? Upon what grounds can such claims be asserted? I cannot imagine a coherent justification, hence my propensity to balk.

            In other words, please be so kind as to ennumerate the different types of belief of which you suppose a human being is capable, and exactly why the acceptance of claims about Yahweh is one of these sorts of belief, while the acceptance of claims about woodland folk is a discernibly different one of these previously ennumerated types. Because Michael Cleary’s acceptance of claims about woodland folk appears to me completely indistinguishable from christian’s acceptance of claims in Yahweh. Now, you can accept or reject with different degrees of certainty, ie, provisionally or dogmatically, but you seem to be supposing that humans are capable of entirely different “dimensions” of acceptance. Pardon me for being skeptical about this.

            Moreover, by the same token as you reject the tyranny of “rational obligations to apply…empirical, scientific criteria,” how can you justify that Michael Cleary’s acceptance of claims about woodland folk are NOT deserving of the same suspension of “rational obligations,” which is clearly implied in the statement, “I honestly do not know how to respond to the silly charge that believing in God is epistemologically equivalent to believing in elves.” If you can accept one claim without an obligation to rationally justify or it, why not another? Where is the difference? Both “acceptances” seem to my tin ear to be indistinguishable from one another. Lest the temptation here arise to rehash the incomprehensibility of supposedly infinite beings versus finite ones, please remember that’s a red herring because epistemology is about how YOU justify the acceptance of claims, not about the claims themselves, let alone the things those claims are about.

            If no such basis for a differentiation between different sorts of human belief can be forwarded, and if it cannot be explicated why the believing of claims regarding Yahweh is justifiably different from the believing of claims regarding woodland folk, then I have to assume that there is no justification for this claim of non-equivalency, and hence no epistemological warrant for it can be advanced. Perhaps theological ones can, but that’s an entirely different ball of wax.

            When you start talking about epistemology, well, that isn’t open to endless manipulation. Either you can coherently justify a claim or you can’t. I’m sorry, but there are rules to epistemology, and if you don’t want to play by them, and nobody is forcing you to, BUT then you don’t get to make claims of an epistemological nature, because that’s either incorrect or dishonest. If everyone did that, then epistemology would cease to mean anything at all. Once you begin down the road of “I won’t play by your rules,” which is perfectly fine btw, however please understand that you’ve *completely abandoned* any hope for making an epistemological case for your position, and you’ve embarked on an entirely theological one. So, if that’s your final answer, then we could consider this matter settled without further adieu.

            So, just don’t tell me the warrant for a claim is epistemological and then not be able to explain how it could be justified by any and all persons. I hope it’s self-evident why that would be equivalent to pissing on my leg and then telling me it’s rain. I think Jesus said that was bad form?

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          • Hopeful Lurker says:

            Beg yall’s pardon, but I’d like to pause from lurking and chime in with a brief disagreement with Fr. Kimel (thank you, btw, for your tolerance and openness in allowing detractors’ posts when many would edit/delete them). Losing my Christian faith has been one of the greatest things that’s ever happend to me. It’s quite the opposite of the “despair, nihilism and destruction” mentioned above. I now have more optimism and hope for the future, both of my own life and others, as well as for the future of the world. That sounds like a script for a cheesy infomercial, sure, but it’s the truth. To associate only negatives with coming to atheism is myopic and dismissive of real, true, personal experiences. I know of others that share the same feeling of resounding relief after finally becoming able to loosen the shackles and lift the veil of dread that had clouded heart and mind for so long. I know you’ll probably dismiss this as delusion, or something else, and I know I won’t be able to convince you it’s true, but I just wanted to pipe up and express this sentiment.

            Sammy, great posts! I could never articulate an argument like that. Thank you!

            Now, back to lurking…

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Hopeful lurker, greetings. Thank you for unlurking and sharing your thoughts. I certainly understand the feelings you have expressed, and I’m acquainted with others who feel similarly. I certainly cannot question your experience, but it is different from mine.

            I do not want to be too invasive here, but may inquire about the form of Christianity you rejected. For example, I know that those who have been raised in an oppressive fundamentalism (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic), find rejection of the faith to be liberating, etc.

            But let me push a bit further hear. Can atheism speak to anyone an ultimate word of hope? Can atheism declare to anyone the absolute meaningfulness of existence? Can atheism unconditionally promise the fulfillment not only of the individual life but of all of creation? Of course it cannot, yet that is precisely what the gospel of Jesus Christ declares, when it is rightly proclaimed. I can think of no other reason to be a Christian than faith in the resurrection and return of Christ.

            What word of comfort can atheism offer to someone who is enduring intense suffering and torment? What word of hope can atheism offer to someone who has lost a beloved spouse or child through death? What word of encouragement can atheism offer to someone who is overwhelmed by utter boredom or paralyzing despair?

            I have at this point, you will note, moved from a mere theism to Christian faith. I am not particularly interested in a philosophical theism, as it does not necessarily affect one’s life one way or the other. If I were ever to lose my Christian faith, I would fall into either agnosticism or atheism. What does the deity of Aristotle have to do with life? But the God who has raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead … well, that is a different matter altogether!

            Thanks again.

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          • Hopeful lurker says:

            Oh, I had just typed several paragraphs that got deleted when I accidentally closed my browser window…ohhh the pain, the pain. I don’t really want to type all that again.

            Anyway, long story short Fr.Kimel – born and raised in Southern Baptist heartland. Attended presby, southern baptist, holiness/penteconstal churches before starting the journey to Orthodoxy (which included books, podcasts, and visits to Greek and Antiochian churches – the Greek congregation was exceptional – wonderful folks!). A few catalysts knocked me for a loop regarding Orthodoxy, which caused me to then open myself up to other possibilities that I began to explore. From Jewish apologetics, to high and low criticism, and deep introspection. Never before had I been open to considering the points found in resources on higher criticism and Jewish apologetics (not much of a fan of apologetics of any kind, but these Jewish sources got me thinking). Final result – Christian faith gone. Gone for good as well, as the combination above demonstrated to me that the Christian construct is false. You just can’t unlearn these things. It wasn’t all of a sudden either. I’m not a leaper unless I’ve looked first.

            As for what atheism can offer those suffering existiential crises, or grief, or intense torment, I have to ask the same of Christianity. How can a doctrine that includes the punishment of hell help someone whose Hindu friend or relative has died – as a Hindu, no deathbed conversion? What does it offer to friends and family of a Buddhist that commits suicide? What about those who have non-Orthodox Christian relatives die? How can a doctrine that insists on fallen nature and the inevitability of sin, something that can only be overcome by the belief in someone that supposedly walked the Earth millenia ago, be more of a benefit to someone than atheism, or any other faith construct? Perhaps it can temporarily, but can it be sustained? I couldn’t sustain it, others obviously can and that’s great for them. What I lost with Christian faith was depressing baggage like this. Being open to higher criticism and its probing of the resurrection, authorship of the gospels, authorship of Genesis, true Christian history and other facets of Christian faith has been a welcome respite from “being convicted by Scripture.” I just don’t think we need to believe in a messiah, savior, resurrected deity, omnipotent god etc, in order to have hope, or relief from suffering of any kind.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Hopeful Lurker, thank you for sharing. When I read stories like yours, my heart breaks, because they witness to the failure of the Church to rightly proclaim and live the gospel of Jesus Christ. At this point we have moved beyond a mere discussion of theism to a discussion of the Christian faith, and this thread (which has already become quite long) is probably not the proper place for us to have this discussion.

            I do not know how long you have been a reader of my blog, but you may find of interest my talk that I recently delivered in Wales. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is “St Isaac the Syrian and Apokatastasis.” Be sure to read the other two parts. At least you will get an idea of how I might respond to the points you have raised in your comment.

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          • Hopeful lurker says:

            Thanks, Fr. Kimel. I’ll check that out (and I will – I did look at the reviews for NT Wright’s book as recommended by another poster as well. Was not impressed, but nevertheless always look for good counter points).

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        • dormativevirtue says:

          Hi Sammy,

          You say: “Specifically, I want to know upon what basis you can conceivably justify claiming that believing in Yahweh is not epistemologically equivalent to believing in the woodland folk.”

          The difference would be one of triteness, would it not? That is, the concepts of fairies and elves and the like bring to mind contingent, finite, that is, limited beings. However, God, from the classical theistic perspective, brings to mind a necessary, infinite, that is, unlimited being. God is a great, big idea, fairies not so much. That said, a distinction of this sort puts a greater, or at least equal, burden of proof (justification) on the person claiming God does not exist. For instance, if I replaced Legolas with Gore Vidal in the LOTR, then the person claiming that Gore Vidal did not exist would have a pretty substantial burden of proof on that front. Greater, I would think, than the person claiming Gore Vidal did exist. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but that is how it seems to me.

          Moreover, there are many different kinds of propositional knowledge. There is practical knowledge, such as the claim that the best way to stay clean is to take baths. There is scientific knowledge, such as the claim that proteins are unbranched polymers of amino acids, or the trematode parasite Dicrocelium dendriticum has a life cycle that takes it through three separate hosts. There is mathematical knowledge, such as the claim that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, or the claim that there are infinitely many prime numbers, or the set of all real numbers is greater than the set of all natural numbers. There is moral knowledge, such as the claim that eating infants is wrong. There is aesthetic knowledge, such as the claim that Bach is better than Debussy. There is religious knowledge, such as the claim that God exists, or Jesus is the Christ. There are many different kinds of propositional knowledge, and I doubt that all of them can be claimed with the same sort of epistemic confidence.

          Which leads me to my next point which is that to justify the claim that fairies or woodland elves exist, if by justify we mean give reasons for, one would have to provide reasons, particularly good reasons for that claim. I don’t need one to give conclusive reasons for or prove, but to merely provide serious reasons for considering the claim ‘fairies exist’ to be on the same epistemic level as the claim ‘God exists’. The claim “God exists” while it maybe mistaken, has some fairly good reasons for thinking that it is true, intuition, religious experience, religious tradition, practical results of a religious life, inductive and deductive arguments, God justifies certain metaphysical, epistemological, and moral assumptions, and so forth. Of course, this does not make it true, but it does make it a justified belief. I just don’t think the same can be said for fairies or woodland elves.

          Of course, I am sympathetic to your overall argument on this thread, but I just hate to hear what sounds like, in another form of words, the statement that negative truth claims do not have a burden of proof. They do. I think comparisons of the sort being talked about fall prey to that fallacy.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Good morning, Sammy. You write:

          The existence of gods, faeries and Santa have all been rejected for the simple reason that there’s never been any objective data left behind by any of these beings, finite or otherwise, to analyze. Scientists, understandably, take the same consistent, “wait and see” approach to all claims, regardless of whether infinite being are supposedly involved or not. They consistently reject claims until they are forced to accept them by data.

          Your remarks, Sammy, overlook the critical point. You are right that we rightly expect faerie-changelings to leave behind some sort of forensic-data, as you call it, that we can study and analyze, and that in the absence of any such data, we do not have sufficient warrant to assert their existence. So far, so good.

          But your argument fails when applied to the infinite Creator, for the reasons already adduced. The infinite Deity who is beyond Being is not an object that we could empirically locate, identify, and analyze, no matter how advanced our technology, as we might locate a quark or a neutrino. I don’t imagine that you believe that the same thing could be said about fairy-changelings? Of course not. Assuming they exist, they exist “somewhere,” perhaps in another dimension or whatever; and someday technology will reach a point that we will be able to discover their hiding place. And if they do indeed interact with human beings and involve themselves in human history, then they will leave behind some kind of evidence in their wake.

          But none of this works with God, cannot work with God. Period. Even when God incarnates himself in human flesh (as Christians believe that he did in Jesus Christ), he still appears as a human being in every respect (that’s the dogmatic point of the Chalcedonian Definition). His life can be studied by historians employing the same methods that they employ when studying other historical figures. The question of the divinity of Jesus cannot be resolved by any kind of empirical study. Even Jesus’ miracles do not prove beyond a reasonable doubt his Godhood. That’s because he is not a god.

          So why believe in God when we no longer believe in gods and other mythological creatures? Because the question of God is existentially raised by life itself. As soon as a person wonders “Does my life have any real meaning?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “Is this all there is?” he has raised the question of God. Fairies or trolls, precisely because of their finitude, cannot be the answer these profound existential questions. Neither science nor philosophy can answer them, though they might just bring us to the brink where we find ourselves looking over the abyss. And they certainly can’t make these questions go away. We ask these questions because we are human. The questions themselves reveal the ineradicable mystery of reality.

          If we should decide, through contemplation and suffering, that the universe bespeaks an answer to these fundamental existential and metaphysical questions, we use the word “God” to name that answer. The mystery remains, but it now has a name.

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          • Sammy says:

            Thank you for your reply.

            Your remarks, Sammy, overlook the critical point.

            Oh dear. Have I still been SO unclear? What’s a body to do? Hence, I shall strive to be even clearer than I was before.

            First of all, let’s get one thing cleared up post haste.

            Who gets to decide what the critical point is? Who is asking the questions here, me, or you? Why do you insist on answering other unstated questions of your own devising, and then have the gall to tell me that I don’t know what my own point is?

            You said: “I honestly do not know how to respond to the silly charge that believing in [Yahweh] is epistemologically equivalent to believing in elves.” Indeed, you still have not figured out any way to respond, let alone defend your characterization of it (and atheists) as “silly.”

            Let me here explicitly restate my questions, the critical point (as it were), yet again, so that at the very least you can have no excuse to say you weren’t *completely* clear what what it was, even if you wish to continue along other currently-embarked-upon, entirely tangential trajectories.

            Question 1) How is choosing to accept one claim NOT epistemologically equivalent to choosing to accept another?

            Corollary A) Of how many distinguishably separate categories of “acceptance” are humans capable? 2? 3? 4? More? Please enumerate these supposedly differentiable categories of human “acceptance” which you are implying you have successfully identified.

            Corollary B) Please explain what method you are using that makes it possible for you to successfully distinguish between one of these enumerated categories of human acceptance and another.

            I am asking questions ONLY about human capabilities, categories of acceptance available for humans to select from, and epistemology. Do you see either deities, infinities, or theologies mentioned? No? Therefore, I cannot explain why you keep discussing deities, infinities, and theology, and refuse to address the critical point!

            In order to defend the position that your choice to accept is NOT epistemologically equivalent to Michael Cleary’s choice to accept, you need to FIRST to address Corollary A and demonstrate that there are at least TWO distinguishably separate categories of “acceptance” from which humans are capable of selecting! Thus far, no such demonstration has been remotely attempted. None.

            Once again, merely asserting that humans have the option to select from among multiple categories of acceptances cannot establish that it is so! If you can’t elucidate any epistemological differences between one “acceptance” and another, maybe there aren’t any? If you cannot answer the critical point, then who is silly? Who is making claims about epistemology that cannot be justified? Your initial claim that I am balking at remains as silly and indefensible as it appeared from the outset.

            Since you’ve tacitly declined to answer and pocket-vetoed my questions in favor other questions I can’t even identify, let me venture to float an answer into that hard vacuum, which might, perhaps, hopefully, cause you to begin to interact with my actual questions, you know, the critical point?

            There are NOT, in fact, any distinguishably separate categories of “acceptance” from which humans are capable of selecting, but merely different categories of “attitude” with which humans can choose to approach the “data.” And when I use the word “data,” I’m using it in the way Hans Halvorson, a devout and committed christian uses it, NOT the way merely some deplorably godless and eternally condemned scientist might use it.

            This is the choice available to us mortals! It is a choice between different attitudes, NOT different acceptances. For with the “right” attitude, acceptance is a forgone conclusion.

            To demonstrate this, let me briefly return to Halvorson’s candid comment that is so germane to MY question (though nothing to do with the questions to which you, among others, keep offering answers):

            There is a challenge intrinsic to a religion based on some sort of revelation…The challenge is that revealed religions, religions where you had a revelation that occurs historically and is not ongoing…If you take the religion seriously, that means you have to come to the ‘data’ [revelation] that they’ve passed down to you with an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ [accept until forced to reject] attitude

            Why shouldn’t you and I both agree that this is, as Halvorson has admitted to, as simple as an “attitude” that shifts the burden of proof? As Halvorson himself admits, trying to convince himself that holding to this “attitude,” one of approaching “data” with this “accept until forced to reject” stance, is a justifiable move is perhaps the biggest weakness of his christian worldview that makes his life difficult! I would put it to you that what we are witnessing (and experiencing!) is merely a different (biasing) “attitude” with which to approach “data.”

            ANYONE who approaches ANY “data” whatsoever with this different “attitude”—be it supposed “revelation” about “great big” competing claims regarding supposedly “beyond being” deities such as Yahweh or Allah (claims that are highly dubious from an epistemological point of view, but again, NOT the critical point), or supposed “data” about “trite” claims regarding woodland folk or the tuna sandwich that might have been eaten or might still be in the refrigerator—will NATURALLY be inclined to choose to accept ANY AND ALL such claims, ALL in an epistemologically equivalent way BECAUSE:

            1) they never had epistemologically non-equivalent ways to choose to accept the “big” claims vs. the “trite” ones, and
            2) because of the “attitude” with which they approached the “data,” an attitude which, when adopted, essentially causes people to fabricate dogmatic “truth” by fiat, out of thin air.

            ERGO:

            RESOLVED: Choosing to accept claims (which, incidentally, might or might not be about Yahweh, Allah, or any other potentially possible but also completely unnecessary unlimited, infinite, ineffible, omni-everything, “beyond being” “beings” or “great big ideas” IS, in fact, EPISTEMOLOGICALLY EQUIVALENT to choosing to accept claims about elves, or, in fact, ANYTHING ELSE, trivial or non-trivial, since no one can even BEGIN to THINK about PROPOSING any way to demonstrate that there MIGHT be even so much as TWO distinguishably separate categories of “acceptance” from which humans might choose.

            RESOLVED: “Atheists” are not silly for thinking humans have only a single category of “acceptance” from which to choose, regardless of what they’re choosing to accept.

            THEREFORE:

            Politely remove the indefensible, libellous, and defamatory accusation that “atheists are silly” from your blog post. It’s unbecoming of someone in your position to disrespect others with inaccurate (or dishonest) insults, who also claims he is an authority suitable to the task of teaching others how to conduct themselves in a “christian” moral manner.

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          • jrj1701 says:

            Sammy, your unwarranted and heavy handed demand is hilarious, you demand that God be reduced to the level of your understanding and insist that Father Aidan is wrong for politely and gently saying the truth. Psalms 14:1 says it more harshly and adds an even greater condemnation of those that refuse to believe. Also you are being hypocritical, for you are equating a belief in the infinite Creator of everything to believing in foolishness, so if you can’t take it, don’t dish it. If you want others to respect your beliefs, you have to extend the same to others. You have been given the choice to believe or not believe and I respect that, yet I will never agree with the choice you have made for yourself and the only time I will complain about your choice is when you insist that I or others are foolish and need to give you a level of respect that ain’t your due or insist that we conform to your decision. Nothing Father Aidan or other believers on this thread has said will harm you and you are not due an apology, nor any other priveledge. Have a nice day.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Who gets to decide what the critical point is? Who is asking the questions here, me, or you? Why do you insist on answering other unstated questions of your own devising, and then have the gall to tell me that I don’t know what my own point is?

            Oops. I appear to have given offense in my comments in the thread. My apologies, Sammy. I certainly did not intend in any way to suggest that you do not know what your “own point” is. In the sentence that gave offense (“Sammy, the critical difference, I think, between faerie changelings and God, the maker of heaven and earth, is the divine infinity coupled with the act of creation ex nihilo”) I was trying to identify what, in my view, is the essential difference between the transcendent Deity of Christian belief and fairie-changelings and other such beings. Fair enough?

            I have to leave now to pick up our Christmas tree and run some pre-Xmas errands. I will try to get back to your comment later this afternoon. It is a busy time of year, perhaps even for atheists. 🙂

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          • dormativevirtue says:

            Hi Sammy,

            I think you have epistemology wrong side up here. If I am reading you correctly, then your argument could be reduced to a sort of psychological necessity. The problem for that approach, in epistemological terms, is that there is no necessary connection between the state of the mind and the truth of the judgement. Although this argument has other merits, as problems for psychology perhaps, I cannot see it has any epistemological purpose.

            For questions about how the senses operate and how beliefs are actually formed are questions of psychology and/or physiology, factual questions rather than philosophical ones. Of course, factual questions have repercussions for philosophical views, but I cannot see that this digression has a point in this context.

            You say: “because of the “attitude” with which they approached the “data,” an attitude which, when adopted, essentially causes people to fabricate dogmatic “truth” by fiat, out of thin air.”

            I am not sure how that “attitude” applies to me? Or the relevance of it as a criticism more generally? Nevertheless, as humans we can formulate our beliefs and inspect them, and criticize them consciously, a benefit of language I think. Popper once said that the only meaningful difference between the amoeba and Einstein is the latter’s ability to criticize the conclusions to which he has jumped. Einstein, not to mention lesser mortals, jumped to many mistaken conclusions. But he can formulate them, try to criticize them, and eliminate the mistaken ones. This is a task of epistemology, but I fail to see how this premise supports your conclusion at all.

            More fatally I think, for your argument though is that it is question begging. Your first premise is your conclusion.

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  5. tgbelt says:

    Tom T has responded to Loftus at length I think. Have you seen any of that Fr Aidan?

    The student won’t be taught philosophy by someone “who thinks not being able to disprove something is a sufficient enough reason to believe it.” If that’s what the Prof really said, then yes, the Prof needs a refresher course. But that’s not (as reported at least) what the Prof said. All the Prof noted is that neither theism nor atheism can prove beyond all rational doubt that God exists or not. The Prof didn’t say what the student reported, namely, that the inability to disprove God beyond all rational doubt “is sufficient reason” for believing in God. That’s a ridiculous piece of reasoning. Of course the failure to prove a proposition is not sufficient reason to believe its contradictory. My money is on its being the case that the Prof never made this particular claim about theism.

    As far as arguing for the non-existence of God (classically understood) and the non-existence of unicorns, true—they both involve that slippery category of attempting to ‘prove a negative’. But (a) induction is valid apart from providing incontrovertible proof; i.e., it may make a proposition very (im)probable, and (b) it’s not the case that since both arguments for/against ‘God’ and ‘Unicorns’ involve inductive type reasoning that both are equally probable/improbable. One has to examine the proposition itself and the reasons for believing it. That the reasons involve induction itself says nothing about the probability of its being true.

    Now, if Loftus believes that one is only justified in believing what can be proven incontrovertibly, as if “justified belief” must qualify on naturalistic presuppositions, that’s his prerogative. But that’s hardly an axiomatic philosophical belief.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Tom T has responded to Loftus at length I think. Have you seen any of that Fr Aidan?”

      No, Tom B, I have not seen Tom T’s response to Loftus. Where can I find it?

      I see that you have raised the difficult question of unicorns. They, of course, are in a totally different category than elves and trolls. 😉

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I didn’t for a moment believe that the professor suggested that not being able to disprove something is sufficient warrant for believing it, which I why, I suppose, I (charitably) interpreted the young man’s words along the lines that I did. Perhaps someone will point him to our discussion and he can clarify what he wrote; but he just seems more plausible to me that he pulled out of the class because he does believe that proving or disproving the existence of God is analogous to proving or disproving the existence of unicorns.

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      • brian says:

        My impression, Father, is that the student probably misconstrued what the professor actually meant, is also ignorant about basic philosophical terms and reasoning, and is probably dogmatic about his atheism. An embarrassment, indeed.

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  6. brian says:

    Prinzler:

    In my view, there is a limit to what dialectic and argument can achieve. Years ago, the political philosopher, Eric Voegelin, asserted that one could no longer have the kind of argument that Aquinas proposes in Summa Contra Gentiles because there was no longer enough common agreement to make significant discussion possible. While this may be too pessimistic an account, it is at least partly true. This is why so often disputants in an argument end up talking past one another.

    As a kind of ground clearing exercise, one at least has to begin by clarifying what is actually asserted and where the agreements and disagreements lie. The small act of charity involved in doing so may be as far as one can get. Peter Leithart has an interesting little blog entry on Hamann and Hume (he writes the blog for First Things; I am referencing one of today’s entries if you are interested.) Hamann asserts that some level of faith is irreducible to human experience. Hence, reason always arises from faith. It is not it’s antithesis.

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    • prinzler says:

      “In my view, there is a limit to what dialectic and argument can achieve.”

      Is that just a personal whim, or is there an argument to made for that assertion? ; )

      I looked at Leithart’s blog post. Cutting to the chase: the faith of Hume, which I presume is faith in induction (although the word “induction” appears nowhere in Leithart’s essay, which merely obscures the issue), is not at all like faith in religion, which I also presume is the ultimate context for you bringing up faith. I’m assuming faith in religion has nothing to do with evidence (otherwise, Leithart’s blog post is meaningless).

      It’s quite possible I’ve gotten Leithart backwards, it’s hard for me to parse his writing style.

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      • brian says:

        I’ll let the seemingly intractable pluralism of the modern world be a prima facie case for the limits of dialectic. Pretty sure Plato saw all this long ago actually . . .

        Hume merely implies that ordinary experience is “always already” based on a faith of some kind. It is obviously a minimalist assertion, but if one grants that faith of some kind is involved in our ordinary experience, than the larger claims of theology are not ruled out as intrinsically irrational from the beginning. This is more a gesture than a developed argument, but I think it’s worth noting.

        Sorry, Leithart’s piece is more a shorthand sketch. It is hard to parse, as is. If you want to look over something more substantial, I suggest you peruse John Milbank’s Stanton Lecture “The Objectivity of Feeling.”

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        • prinzler says:

          Thanks, Brian, I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding.

          I don’t see the pluralism of the modern world as any case for the limits of dialectic. Science, for one, is not pluralistic.

          What kind of faith is necessary for ordinary experience? Especially if one views agreement between individuals on the content of experience in purely functional or utilitarian terms, as in “science works.”

          In any event, why would faith minimally necessary justify other faith that isn’t minimally necessary?

          I wasn’t looking for a longer exposition of Leithart’s ideas, I was looking for something clearer. I think it was Einstein who said, “If you can’t explain something to your grandmother, you don’t really understand it.”

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          • brian says:

            Do you really think that complex reality can be reduced to something your grandmother can understand? Do you think Einstein could actually explain his ideas in a manner his grandmother would get? He’s fibbing or playing to egalitarian sympathies.

            I would argue that science is pluralistic. Hamann’s critique of Enlightenment reason was that it took what was actually an ideological stance with a historical background and cultural presuppositions and treated it as something universal and ahistorical. Just because modern science has now become broadly appealing does not mean that it lacks a genealogy.

            This was Heidegger’s point in the question concerning technology, btw.

            I suppose you didn’t follow the Hume example at all if you are asking those questions. One can either accept, i.e., believe, that one’s perceptions disclose reality or not. The scientific method, for instance, cannot by itself justify it’s own notion of truth. There is no starting point “apart from faith” that can provide that justification.

            This is not the place for an extended argument. The brief point is that no one has an epistemology that is not ground in some kind of faith — even those who claim radical skepticism or a nihilist rejection of any intrinsically meaningful reality.

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          • prinzler says:

            Brian, I agree that Einstein’s maxim can only be taken so far, but I always appreciate it when it is taken as far as it can.

            Perhaps what’s universal about science is its goal: to find out how the world works regardless of who asks the question or from what culture that person is from. That science was developed in particular cultures, in a historical background, etc., doesn’t change the universality of its goal unless the genetic fallacy isn’t a fallacy.

            I don’t think science has to claim that one’s perceptions disclose reality, it merely, at minimum, has to say, “this apparently, to the best that we can tell, works regardless of who is asking the question, from what culture, etc.” Whether that is disclosing reality or not is a separate question, perhaps for metaphysicians, or perhaps on how one defines the word “reality.”

            And in that sense, science doesn’t have to justify beyond, for instance, “If you want to go to the moon, here are the equations that will help get you there.” There’s no faith in any of that, only evidence.

            That everyone might have to have some sort of faith does not, in itself, justify faith in anything.

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  7. brian says:

    prinzler:

    This discussion requires proper leisure and the capacity to follow an argument that would lead into many bypaths. Unfortunately, I am writing from my day job and can’t give the attention it is due. I think that the very way you understand science is still more ideologically constrained than you imagine. The very concept of what nature is or what an object is or how one should engage such involves choices and decisions that not every one will agree upon.

    In general, modernity narrowed its focus to pragmatic/utilitarian scope. I think this has lead to deeply inhumane consequences, but it is certain that the prestige and appeal of science with ordinary folk is tied to its technological application.

    Again, I have not offered an argument for theological faith. That would be a much more involved discussion and I don’t think — as I noted above — that dialectic is capable of taking one too far in that direction, which is not to say that it is without value. I would be happy to have further discussion with you on these matters, but I am going to busy for the next several hours.

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    • prinzler says:

      You’re missing my point by still trying to shoe-horn my approach to science into involving the “very concept of what nature is . . . .” Science need only, at minimum, be functional/operational.

      I hope your business is fruitful, maybe we’ll continue the conversation.

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  8. brian says:

    Yes, but accepting a functional/operational criteria is a choice. It’s fine to methodologically bracket out other considerations, but when one reduces truth to what is ascertained by science, one is making a claim that science itself cannot justify.

    I’ll check back in an hour or so if you have further thoughts.

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    • prinzler says:

      I’m not eliminating them as much as trying to define what is the minimum one would have to assume. Also, I’d rather say that I’m reducing “truth” to what can be verified, and science looks to be the best way to do that. If there is another method that produces good results, I’m all ears.

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      • brian says:

        Hi prinzler:

        When you associate truth with a “method that produces good results” you are implicitly making assertions about the nature of truth. Goethe famously stated that “nature does not suffer her veil to be taken from her, and what she does not choose to reveal to the spirit, thou wilt not wrest from her by levers and screws.” H2O may be a perfect transcription of how water behaves under certain conditions and it may allow all sorts of technological achievement that is helpful, but water is certainly much more than H2O,

        When you think of truth as that which produces results, you leave out all sorts of things like play, beauty, love, which I don’t think can be taken away from a proper notion of what truth is. Methodological science attempts to produce results based on what is repeatable, quantifiable, at least hypothetically open to anyone who can reproduce the experiment. However, art, history, personal experience necessarily is incommensurable with such a method. The ancients understood that wisdom involved a praxis that was not simply accessible to method. Something might be revealed to an individual that was unique, true, important for others, but it would require witness and trust for that truth to become culturally available.

        All this also involves a notion that qualities are not simply subjective epiphenomena projected upon realities that are “really” only what is quantifiable. Galileo opted to reduce reality to what could be quantified, but that is certainly a choice one need not agree to,

        What is often lost to many, but not usually the best scientists, is the event quality of truth, the awareness that something like inspiration is involved and elements beyond what is useful or subject to math alone. Physicists talk about the beauty principle, for instance.
        Regardless, I assert that truth transcends even these considerations. I would have to gesture towards Mystery and explain how this is an ontological category and not a kind of “problem” that disappears with discovery, but this is a notion many modern people have trouble grasping. Plato and Aristotle recognized that wonder was the beginning of philosophy, but it also the end. Understanding does not reduce wonder. If it does, one’s understanding is inadequate.

        In the Republic, Socrates argues with Thrasymachus who was a representative sophist. The sophists “argued for victory” and did not believe in substantive truth beyond mere power. However, Socrates shows Thrasymachus that he believes in something more than power. Thrasymachus thinks he has some excellence that sets him apart from others and he thinks justice demands that his excellence be recognized. This is not self-serving. Insofar as he appeals to a standard beyond simply getting the better of his peers by whatever means, Thrasymachus shows that he has a sense of truth. The excellent is that which is praiseworthy.

        Truth for the Greeks was that which appeared and that appearance was the beauty of truth. This suggests that truth beckons beyond what is useful and what appeals to the petty ego. Beauty, properly understood, is not subject to command. We are erotically drawn towards the beautiful and it can command us. Ultimately, truth in a theological mode is a whyless why. Creation exists as a function of love, not as a grasping of reality in order to make it serve our needs. Undoubtedly, there is a place for the latter, but when one cannot see beyond the utile, one is enslaved to a vision that ends in torture and despair. I don’t expect you to understand these claims and I surmise it will probably seem like empty rhetoric. This is certainly not a minimal account, but truth only realizes itself in a maximal flourishing.

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        • prinzler says:

          “When you associate truth with a “method that produces good results” you are implicitly making assertions about the nature of truth.”

          I think that discussing “truth” is only going to muddy the waters. I would rather say that, if we want to know something about the world, I’m open to some method other than science being effective. Alternatively, can you state one of these assertions I must be making?

          “Goethe famously stated that “nature does not suffer her veil to be taken from her, and what she does not choose to reveal to the spirit, thou wilt not wrest from her by levers and screws.” ”

          We have learned some things about nature, but not everything. But not learning everything does not automatically invalidate what we have learned. (Learned in the sense that we can accomplish some task with the information we have learned.)

          “water is certainly much more than H2O,”

          I agree, as would science.

          “When you think of truth as that which produces results, you leave out all sorts of things like play, beauty, love, which I don’t think can be taken away from a proper notion of what truth is. ”

          I am not saying that what is true is that which produces results. One’s method of discovering what is true (in the plain, common sense – we will muddy the waters no more quickly than to start getting into definitions of the word “truth”) is what must produce results in order to have confidence in it, and those results must be verifiable; otherwise, all sorts of untrue claims can slip by. Is that really that controversial?

          Are we clear that personal experience is distinguished from that which holds for anyone and everyone, as science discovers. If it’s just in your head, then it’s just in your head. If it’s not just in your head, then you need to demonstrate that.

          I’m not talking about that which can be quantified, only verified.

          “I would have to gesture towards Mystery and explain how this is an ontological category”

          Please do. I hope you will be able to demonstrate that mystery as an ontological category is not merely something that you are making up in your head. I also would ask that you state a clear definition of what you mean by the word “mystery.”

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          • brian says:

            Prinzler:

            I agree with Jonathan and I already noted to you the limits of dialectic. The fact that argument can do little, however, does not mean that it is worthless. It can reach a degree of diminishing returns. I will try once more with a prolonged explanation I have every confidence you will find unsatisfactory.

            I tried to advert to art, history, and experiential knowledge that is unique, and therefore not subject to the kind of replication necessary for the scientific method. I do not grant that these are simply “just in your head.”

            Modern epistemology is “representational” — it thinks of objects “out there” that are more or less accurately transcribed into “subjective thoughts.” Following Descartes and Kant, it posits a radical divide between the mind and the outer world. An older participation metaphysics as one finds in Plato, for example, asserts that both the “object” in nature and the “idea” in your head participates in the same ontological reality. Now, there are all kinds of reasons why one’s purchase on reality might be faulty, so this doesn’t mean that every idea an individual has is real in the metaphysical sense, but insofar as knowledge is “true” — sorry, one cannot dispense with the concept, muddy as one might find it — it is essentially not a mere subjective speculation.

            I claim that art, history, personal experience,(theology includes the notion of revelation, but as this has already proven the intractability of pluralism as I suggested early in this conversation, I am bracketing that) — these aspects of human life are cognitive — they reveal depths of reality that are unavailable to scientific method. However, undoubtedly, they require discernment and they make more strenuous claims on the individual to pursue and wrestle with truth claims that are not directly subject to the narrow limits of a particular method. They are not replicable and thus not verifiable, that doesn’t mean they are incapable of revealing what is real.

            Nothing I said implied that scientific knowledge was invalid. I pointed out that it is intrinsically unable to comprehend the fullness of truth.

            Much of what I said is not really getting through to you and I suspect we are at one of those impasses where people simply talk past one another. I tried to underline your recurrence to what inspires “confidence” and “verifiability” in terms of results. Implicitly, you are limiting truth to what can fit the scientific model. Further, in my opinion, there is a strong anthropological bias built into modern science. The irony is that the popular received history which is suffused with Enlightenment ideology is that Galileo’s heliocentric triumph was a victory over a parochial earth-bound, anthropocentric vision in favor of a “neutrality” that did away with such species specific bias.

            Not only was Galileo not simply engaged in the “naive empiricism” that moderns often blithely attribute to him, but the shift in sensibility merely made the irreducible human aspect of the scientific enterprise “invisible” to most of its practitioners and the masses who give broad assent to the authority of science even on subjects it has no authoritative capacity to pronounce upon. In short, modern science is, if anything, more anthropologically bound, and this is discoverable in the emphasis on “what works” and the production of technology as the ultimate seal of veracity for the many who “believe” that science is the highest arbiter of what is real, true, choose whatever word you like.

            Works like those of Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi, among others, have documented all this, btw.

            So, skipping a bit, how does one verify something whose truth content is essentially passing and only available to a discerning eye? The Japanese tea ceremony is strictly regulated, but the person of taste, experience, and attention will be able to note the uniquely personal aspect of the encounter precisely as something that occurs within, but apart from, the constantly repeated order.

            One can, of course, dismiss all that as “subjective” and not cognitively important, but one can’t prove that by science. It’s a decision you have made as to what one will or will not ascribe the category of truth to. This is not “muddying” since implicitly you think science trumps theology or poetry or other modes of knowledge because it’s “results” and “verifiability” make it open to egalitarian notions of truth as universally open to consensus based on a repeatable method.

            Mystery as an ontological category is tied to a participation metaphysics. I will use an analogy. One can talk about having the last word, but that is a virtual concept of convenience. In reality, so long as persons exists, the potential for continued conversation exists. It is infinitely open-ended and the possibility for novelty is at least potentially there, even if in our ordinary experience, one usually comes to a dead end or to a habitual mode of rote conversation that is no longer dramatic, creative, or “truth revealing.”

            If one discerns that ontic appearances are rooted in an ontological depth that makes the appearance possible (sorry, this is a philosophical concept and I cannot make it simple so that Einstein’s grandmother can understand) then it is possible to ascribe a “word-like” character to reality. This has been noticed by artists and philosophers, poets and I suspect ordinary people who did not leave an artifact behind to trace their observation. In theological terms, the very idea of creation implies a “logos” character that gives meaning to being.

            Modern science initially grew out of this confidence in the rationality of being. It later undercut it’s own foundations by embracing an essentially irrational causality in pure chance without any awareness that even chance must operate upon something and if that something is contingent being, one either has to fideistically choose an eternally contingent being that just happens to be there or pursue a more rational foundation which turns out to be something like God.

            Anyway, if the being we encounter is always already rooted in an infinite ground of being, then it has a “word-like” character that, like conversation, is infinitely open to dramatic possibilities. New encounters, new depths, creatively new aspects of reality heretofore unknown are available. This “surplus” as the post-moderns have it, is part of an irreducible mystery. There’s actually more to it than this, of course, but isn’t this prolix enough? The pithy conclusion I assert: science thinks of reality as a problem to be solved. It solves for X, and like an Agatha Christie, once it discovers the truth about X, the mystery no longer exists. Of course, it goes on to find other problems and seeks new answers, but the answered mystery is no longer a mystery. Theological mystery adverts to the participation of finite reality in an infinite that gifts to each created being a depth that can never be “solved for.” The more you discover, the more you are aware of the “freedom” of the thing, even the thingness of a rock, because its metaphysical depth is “operationally communicative” of depths beyond its own resources.

            Naturally, this cannot be demonstrated in the manner in which one demonstrates the veracity of a scientific experiment. Truth, ultimately, is not constrained by demonstration and cannot be limited to the demonstrable. You may dislike this and refuse to call it truth. That is as I keep repeating, a decision you make for whatever personal, historical, culturally impressive existential reasons that you may have.

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          • prinzler says:

            Brian:

            I fail to see where the checks and balances are in your alternative, where do you catch yourself making mistakes, fooling yourself, etc.?

            “They are not replicable and thus not verifiable, that doesn’t mean they are incapable of revealing what is real.”

            Without replication or verifiability, how can you know that what appears to be real actually is real and that some mistake hasn’t been made?

            I don’t see any reason why the subtleties of a tea ceremony beyond science.

            I confess that most of the rest of your post is meaningless to me. With all due respect, it seems hopeless to try to untangle what you might mean. The language in impenetrable. This is an unfortunate trend in academia, actually. Are you sure there wasn’t a simpler way to say what you meant?

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  9. Jonathan says:

    This kind of thing never does seem to get anywhere, whether in Lucretius’ time or our own. Yet we all know, or should know, that in uncountable ways what we’re calling science can make life more humane, and in uncountable ways it can make life into hell. But scientific inquiry can’t give even one reason why it might be good in itself, or why life is worth living even when it is hell.

    Once you’re inside the Christian world, it’s important to have recourse to various forms of what we broadly call rationality — argument, essentially — in order to further explore the possibilities of spiritual life, the parameters and nuances of revelation, and so on. But no one has ever been argued into being an authentically believing Christian, and it’s not about to happen here, I think. There is a reason why the Gospel was called foolishness to the Greeks. And there is a reason why theologians of all stripes have to posit something like prevenient grace.

    Here is something religious belief in a transcendental deity is not: assent to one or more propositions. “Unicorns exist” or “God exists” are propositions. “I believe in one God. . .” is not. The grammatical case is all-important. That is the absolute bedrock of religious life right there, out in the open, in plain language. There is no infinite regression along the lines of, But what does “believe” mean? How do you know you believe what you think you believe? No. That is skepticism, by its nature incapable of arriving at religious faith. Everyone is entitled to be skeptical (I’m inclined to say any mature person must be at least for a time), but no one is entitled to expect the ways of skepticism to make clear and acceptable to the skeptical mind the ways of religious belief. They are incommensurable discourses, the way the grammatical third-person and the first-person are incommensurable. The rationalist becomes frustrated. “How do you ever expect to convert me to your religion with statements like these?!” I’m not in the conversion business myself, thank God, but my answer in a situation like that would be: I don’t have any such expectation. A Christian is charged first of all to witnesses to the truth of his faith, not to argue about it. This state of affairs is not satisfying either to the Christian or to the non-believer. I doubt very much it is meant to be.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, I want to thank you for this comment. I heartily agree with most of your points, which are also much better stated than I could ever muster. You may find of interest this “Brief Personal Confession of Faith,” published last March.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Thanks, Father. Yours is a very moving statement. It brought to my mind something Leonard Cohen sings: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. . . That’s how the light gets in.”

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    • prinzler says:

      Jonathan wrote: “assent to one or more propositions. “Unicorns exist” or “God exists” are propositions. “I believe in one God. . .” is not.”

      Jonathan, this, clarifies the issue for me in a way I’ve never seen before, thank you very much. But here’s my problem:

      If belief in god is not a proposition, then how does a believer relate to the proposition that god exists? Must they necessarily accept that proposition because one must first think something exists before one believes in it, or can they possibly reject that proposition yet still maintain their belief somehow?

      I guess it comes down to what exactly do you mean by “belief” if it is not equal to or rests on accepting a proposition? Blind faith would be one other possible definition, I can’t come up with anything else. Please advise.

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      • Jonathan says:

        These are fair questions, prinzler, ones I have asked at times, but I can tell you right now that I won’t be able to give you answers you will consider fair. I’ll ramble anyway, hopefully giving you food for thought. I’ll try to take a slightly different tack from brian, though I pretty much agree with what he’s saying.

        Belief is experience, and experience involves the total human person, not only the rational part. You’re treating belief as a kind of knowledge, and knowledge as purely factual, as something that exists objectively with respect to the knower. For the Biblical man, knowledge and love are inseparable. You’re familiar with how two people might be said to “know” each other “in the Biblical sense.” Think about that. I know my wife. What is meant is not that I can produce a series of vital statistics about her, or that I could pick her out of a crowd of similar looking women. I could do those things, but my knowledge of her is coeval and coextensive with my love for her, which is why my relationship to her is unique and unrepeatable. My knowledge of my wife is also dependent on her knowledge of me. If my wife were not my wife, but merely some woman I was fixated upon and who did not reciprocate that attention, I could not be said to really know her in the fullest sense. (And I would probably end up in trouble sooner or later.) As it is with human love-and-knowledge, so it is — this is the Bible’s great proposition, if you like — with the relationship between mankind and God. If I were to try to live my marriage based solely on various things that I or anyone could ascertain objectively about myself and my wife, such as our incomes, our geographical origins, our physical health, etc, it would not be a very good marriage. It wouldn’t really be a marriage at all, but a sociologist’s or demographer’s report about a “household.” In other words, it would be a marriage transposed into the third-person. But marriage is a matter of the first- and second-person, “I-Thou” as Martin Büber styled it. Think about a wedding ceremony: it is called an exchange of vows, not an exchange of propositions.

        I pluck the marriage chord because it happens to be central to how the Christian Church conceives of itself. That is not an accident, a fluke of poetry. If the Church’s conception of itself as the Bride of Christ is in error, if it fundamentally misses what the reality of the human condition is, then Christianity is evacuated of its first- and second-person discourse and becomes a skeleton of propositions. As long as that is what Christianity is, I do not see how it should persuade anybody to accept it. It certainly didn’t persuade me for as long as I thought about it that way. But from a Christian perspective there isn’t really any such thing as “Christianity.” The term has value for the historian, the sociologist, the psychologist perhaps. But for the Christian what is real is the Church. That is the operative term, because the Church is personal, as — truly — all brides are. “Christianity” is impersonal, an abstraction. On does not accept Christianity, one accepts Christ. But marriage is the kind of thing that you only fully know by doing it. So is religious belief. Knowledge in the fullest sense, which includes things like faith and belief, but also desire and love, is personal.

        The most direct answer I can give to your question “How does a believer relate to the proposition, ‘God exists’?” is: In various ways, and maybe not at all. As Fr Aidan mentions somewhere above or below, God does not really exist in the normal sense of the word. You wonder what belief can be other than propositional knowledge or blind faith. In talking about it as part of total human experience, which I’m stressing is radically personal, I hope you might in turn question why you conceive of faith or belief as blind. It is rather your version of knowledge, which excludes the better part of human experience, which seems sensorily deprived in some way. You ask if a person can reject the proposition of God’s existence and still maintain their belief somehow, and to that I would answer yes. Or say that he can ignore that proposition and still be in good standing with the traditional Christian churches, because the Christian is required to say “I believe in one God. . .” not “I believe that one God exists. . .” Do you see how the latter statement is a proposition, but not the former? Language is not all propositional, and yet it is the fabric of human reality.

        I lived the first 28 years of my life pretty much as an atheist, or what’s a better term, a philosophical materialist with occasional inklings of something irreducible to rational discourse. I may have some knowledge of where you’re coming from. I don’t think there’s any sort of experience you can orchestrate for yourself that can turn the inert matter of factual knowledge into living experience. You can’t read your way into reality, because even if you’re reading Dostoevsky, or the Gospels for that matter, you’re already reading either objectively or subjectively, you’ve already decided before turning the first page whether the words at hand are a matter of interest containing ideas for you to entertain, or a matter of urgency conveying truth that has direct bearing on your personal existence. Christopher Dawson, the Catholic historian, said the religious man is the man of desire. Belief has to begin in desire (I maybe somewhat clumsily invoked “prevenient grace” above when this is closer to what I meant). You can’t desire to affirm the proposition “I believe that God exists.” Who gets a thrill from making such a statement? You can only desire to affirm a personal belief in God (“I believe in God”). Truth, insofar as it is value and not just fact, is like love, relational and interpersonal. As the old blues song has it, “You can’t make love all by yourself.”

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        • brian says:

          Extremely well said, Jonathan.

          Like

        • prinzler says:

          Jonathan, I have a lot to say about love and knowledge, but I’m going to focus now on belief and knowledge.

          First, it’s been mentioned that God exists in some way different than how everything in the universe exists. I can accept that for the sake of discussion, but allow me to suggest a way forward: when atheists say that they don’t believe in god, they mean that there is no reason to think that god exists *in any way or manner.* So can we deal with the word “exist” in that sense, and leave the details of the particular manner in which god might exist to later in the argument? This is a crucial point, as you’ll see below.

          I didn’t *necessarily* conceive of faith as blind, as you imply. I merely mentioned blind faith in order to distinguish the various options that were at play (knowledge based on evidence, blind faith, etc.).

          You wrote: “You ask if a person can reject the proposition of God’s existence and still maintain their belief somehow, and to that I would answer yes. ”

          So you’re saying that someone is believing in something that they think doesn’t exist *in any way or manner” (see above). Then why won’t a believer admit that god doesn’t exist in any way, shape, or manner? I could respect someone who believes in Superman – and who therefore tries to act in a manner consistent with “truth, justice, and the American way,” but who also understood that Superman was just a comic character, and didn’t really *exist.* But believers don’t seem to do that. It seems to me that believers claim that God exists in some fashion, and there’s the rub.

          I agree that experience is not a proposition, but I think you’re problem is that you’re trying to turn your personal, subjective feelings/experiences into objective propositions. At least I’m not confusing the two. Unless you’re willing to admit that you do reject the proposition that God exists in any manner.

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          • brian says:

            Damn it, prinzler:

            I’m not getting drawn into this. I have cats to feed.

            God must exist “in some fashion.” I adverted earlier to an apophatic tradition that recognized the distinction between God’s manner of existing and the way creatures exist.

            Belief in a God that did not exist “in some fashion” seems a completely irrational act. I love the people I love because I believe they are persons, not figments of my imagination or strangely compelling epiphenomena of essentially dead, mechanical matter.

            Pretty sure Jonathan would agree, but I’ll let him speak for himself.

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          • Jonathan says:

            prinzler,

            Yeah, okay, I would assent to the proposition that God exists in some way. The Thomists and Palamites can duke it out as to how exactly the word “exist” should be construed in a further adumbration of propositional language. The gist of my foregoing remarks was that the distinction between objective and subjective deployed here is faulty. At issue is the unity of personhood, the inextricability of belief from things like love, desire, wonder, and even fear. If you abstract belief and lay out its contents propositionally, you get something that I am saying basically doesn’t matter very much. Anyway it doesn’t interest me greatly, so I will not be able to offer a good defense or explanation. Anyone can enumerate the propositional content of the Christian religion until he’s blue in the face, it doesn’t make him a Christian.

            If you are genuinely interested in understanding religion better, then at some point you have to dive into it as fully as possible. In the case of the Christian message, you have to open yourself up to the idea that the Gospel’s demands are absolute, that they are made on you as a person not as an intellect. I am by no means anti-intellectual or an irrationalist, but I know from experience there comes a point in one’s life when disputation just doesn’t cut it any more. Some things you have to find out for yourself. Now, despite what I said earlier about not being able to read yourself into faith, I will make a couple of recommendations. When I was in a position that may have been similar to yours I read Man Is Not Alone and God In Search of Man by A J Heschel, a mid-20th century rabbi; I also read Cardinal Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. You might find those works stimulating. I think they address some of your concerns, and they are certainly well written.

            I hope this doesn’t sound condescending. I don’t mean to come off that way at all, but fear that I have. There is nothing more inimical to the life of faith than complacency and over-confidence. Many of the great women and men of faith have led lives of ceaseless inner struggle, from the Old Testament prophets on down through Simone Weil and Thomas Merton. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno has a tough little book called The Agony of Christianity. And of course the names Pascal and Kierkegaard are practically synonymous with the trials of faith. So I don’t want to sound like I have all the answers here. But I do know it is necessary to approach the question of religion from the right existential angle, and propositional discourse rooted in inadequate concepts of subjectivity and language is not that. Much of the Christian faith can be described rationally, but we have to really think about what “rationally” means. And at the end of the day the person of faith lives in the tensions of paradox, just as the person of desire lives between the dead state of no desire and the satisfied state of fulfilled desire. We are creatures of in betweenness, what I think Plato called metaxis.

            I hope this has been somewhat helpful. Good luck in your questioning. I probably won’t be able to check back in here for a while.

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          • prinzler says:

            OK, Jonathan, so we are back to the proposition that God exists (in some fashion). The atheist’s approach is to realize that there must be some way to verify and confirm the proposition before accepting it. Do you agree that there must be some way to verify and confirm that proposition? If so, can you describe what that is (you don’t have to lay out the entire process, you can summarize it)?

            “Some things you have to find out for yourself. ” Why is that, especially for propositions, like “God exists in some fashion,” that make a claim about reality. Not seeing the need for verification and confirmation of that proposition leaves one open to mistakes, fooling oneself, etc.

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          • Jonathan says:

            really quick, prinzler: the process is, you ask yourself if it feels true. In other words you don’t verify it, because this isn’t a proposition like others. Does that leave you open to making mistakes, to fooling yourself? You’re damn right it does. Faith is not for the faint of heart. You put too much store in a very limited notion of verification. Here is a proposition for you: There is an island off the southern coast of Australia called Tasmania. Now go verify it to your heart’s content. After all, why should the geographers be telling us the truth?

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          • prinzler says:

            Jonathan, whether something feels true is a horrible way to decide whether a proposition is true. Surely a moment’s reflection will show you that two different people can feel two mutually exclusive ways about a proposition, which then leads to an insurmountable problems as to whether the proposition should be accepted or not. However, if that isn’t a problem for you, I have a bridge to sell you.

            Regarding Tasmania: I’m amazed that you present this as a serious rebuttal. Remembering that verification is usually (always, perhaps, but I’m hedging my bets here) a matter of more or less, and not absolute right and wrong, surely another moment’s reflection would lead you to realize that I’d have to accept many more incredible propositions if Tasmania was not a real place (involving the State Department, every university’s geography departments, book publishers, NASA, etc.) than not. And, of course, you don’t require personal experience as the only form of verification for all the mundane details in your life. And, verifying Tasmania personally is possible, in principle. I could go on.

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          • Jonathan says:

            I’m kidding about Tasmania. The point is, we take a lot on faith, more than we think. Your basic problem is you want to know how we test propositions, and I’m telling you that accepting religious faith just isn’t about that. What’s more, the “testing” of the particular kind of proposition that you want to know about (yes, I should have let Tasmania be) is different from how we verify other props. You want it to be all the same. That’s understandable, but I don’t think it will work. I also think that we place too much emphasis on agreement. There cannot be as much of it in the world as we would like. The Christian message ultimately has to persuade, which is different from winning an argument. People are persuaded in their hearts. So that is why I say that you “test” the Gospel by asking yourself, looking into your heart. And this takes time, as Brian says below, it isn’t a one-off event.

            So, as I said at the outset, I don’t think you’re going to be satisfied here. You want a scientific demonstration of the truth of a religion’s central claims. You’re not going to get it. If it were that easy, we would all have been uncritical Christians for the last two thousand years. The history of Christian dogma is evidence enough that verifying propositions isn’t a piece of cake.

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          • prinzler says:

            Jonathan:

            “The point is, we take a lot on faith, more than we think. ”

            Let’s not equivocate on faith. “Faith” in your sentence above properly means “confidence that can be verified,” and has nothing to do with blind faith or lack of evidence.

            “Your basic problem is you want to know how we test propositions, and I’m telling you that accepting religious faith just isn’t about that.”

            Knowing how to test a proposition isn’t a problem, it’s a fundamental requirement for taking seriously the question of how we know the world and reality. Religious faith may or may not be about more than just that, but my issue is *that* part of religious faith, and not other parts of it. Religious faith is making propositional claims, as you agreed to earlier, so we need a way that those propositions are tested and verified.

            “What’s more, the “testing” of the particular kind of proposition that you want to know about (yes, I should have let Tasmania be) is different from how we verify other props.”

            Why should this be? Be careful you are not special pleading.

            “I also think that we place too much emphasis on agreement. There cannot be as much of it in the world as we would like. ”

            Why should different people reasonably hold different ideas about what is the proper way to verify propositions? If a process truly verifies a proposition, it should apply to anyone, in principle. That’s part of what it means to verify.

            “The Christian message ultimately has to persuade, which is different from winning an argument. People are persuaded in their hearts. ”

            This proposes that feelings, or something else that you mean by “in their hearts,” is the proper way to verify a proposition. But I’ve already mentioned how feelings can lead two people to mutually exclusive propositions, so this doesn’t look at all encouraging as a method for verification, does it?

            “You want a scientific demonstration of the truth of a religion’s central claims.”

            Whether we call my position a scientific one or not is irrelevant; I merely think it is proper that we have some good method for verifying claims and propositions. The one I’ve heard, about one’s heart and feelings, doesn’t make the cut for the reason I’ve mentioned, and maybe other reasons, too.

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  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Good morning, Sammy and Prinzler. I first want to thank you both for the civility of your argumentation. You have argued vigorously for your views but also with mutual respect. I commend you.

    I’m not sure if I’m awake yet (only my first cup of coffee), but I want to address a question I think I see both of you asking of me and others. Prinzler writes:

    I think you mean that, if you *knew* God existed, that knowledge would rest on some sort of evidence, sufficient in amount and quality for that knowledge; but if you *believe* in God, then you’re basing your belief on something other than evidence. Can you say what that is? And, can you offer a reason why that thing is a proper thing on which to base belief? Also, aren’t belief and knowledge both claims about reality? Is there any difference between them other than one (presumably) rests on evidence and the other doesn’t?

    At this point I find myself without the philosophical distinctions that, say, an analytical philosopher might invoke at this point. I almost wish this debate had happened 20 years ago when I was reading stuff that would be helpful for our discussion. 20 years later I have forgotten so much, as I have devoted my reading to other topics. But here I go …

    The first thing we need to do is to agree that knowing God, if such a God exists, is not like and cannot be like knowing any other kind of object (in fact, I hate even using the word “object” of God, as clearly he is not an object). In other words, I’m asking you and your fellow atheists to put aside the fairy argument and to acknowledge that God, as understand by the classical Christian tradition, is not a reality that the natural sciences can analyze or study or measure. I cannot see how there can be any constructive discussion until atheists stop treating the divine Creator as a thing that resides within the universe. I understand that part of the problem here lies with the Christians with whom you are used to debating. Bible-believing evangelicals, for example, often have little acquaintance at all with the theological tradition, and as a result they often present YHWH as simply another god, with the qualification that there’s just one of him. I am as critical of their theological presentations as you are.

    I stand within the classical Christian tradition, and as I and others have tried to explain, the God in whom we believe, the God we worship and pray to, is the transcendent Creator who has made the universe (and multiverse) from out of nothing. I throw in the creatio ex nihilo (which an increasing number of evangelicals now reject, as they do find it explicitly stated in the Bible) because we really cannot begin to grasp who and what we classical Christians understand God to be unless one begins to grasp the mystery and inconceivability of divine transcendence. The Eastern Fathers make this point by speaking of God as “beyond Being.”

    So you have to grant me and all other classical Christians this starting point. This starting point is not idiosyncratic or unique to me. Believe me when I tell you that I am trying to articulate, however poorly, what Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians believe. Okay so far?

    (Oops. I see that it is getting close to 10:00 a.m., and I need to run to the dentist’s office. I’ll continue my comment later this afternoon. Cheers.)

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    • prinzler says:

      Dear Aidan, I will try my best to keep my part of the conversation civil and respectful, I’m merely interested in vigorously defending what I’ve already concluded, as well as being open to learn something that might change my conclusions if warranted.

      Like

    • prinzler says:

      Aidan, may I ask for direct answers to my previous questions?

      “. . . if you *believe* in God, then you’re basing your belief on something other than evidence. Can you say what that is? And, can you offer a reason why that thing is a proper thing on which to base belief? Also, aren’t belief and knowledge both claims about reality?”

      Are you using empirical evidence, logic, feelings, a combination, or what?

      Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Good evening, prinzler. Boy, this has been a busy day. I’m just only now getting an opportunity to take a look at this thread. Wow! Lots of interesting discussion. I only have time now to address the above question, then I have to take the dogs for a walk and then I’m out for dinner.

        You ask if I believe on the basis of evidence? Before I answer, I have to ask you to please define “evidence.” I don’t think I can give you an adequate answer (if there is one) until I know precisely what you are asking.

        I do, of course, have reasons; indeed, I’m sure I have, like most believers, a host of reasons–experiential and mystical, philosophical, moral, and so forth. Only together have they led me to give my rational assent to the proposition “God exists.” If I were a sophisticated man, perhaps I might be able to offer something along the lines of John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent; but I’m just a blogger, so all I can do is to refer you to Newman for one account of belief.

        If God is, as I have attempted to argue, ineffable, infinite mystery, then we have no choice but to invoke the totality of human experience. As Hart writes: “Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.” It’s everything–or nothing. I think it is true that at a specific moment of time an individual believer might be able to point to a specific datum, whether it be a philosophical argument or a religious experience of some kind, as being crucial for their faith; but that doesn’t mean that it stands alone. It’s the totality of human experience, not just one aspect, that truly counts.

        It’s not just a matter of “opinion,” though in contrast to the knowledge claims of science, it may certainly seem as mere opinion or bias. But then we have to remember that the experience of the infinite Creator (if there is such an experience) must necessarily involve the whole of human experience of reality.

        For an approach to faith that rings true to my experience as a Christian, see Jonathan Miller’s interview of Denys Turner:

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        • prinzler says:

          Aidan, by “evidence” I mean empirical evidence. Notice that I’m not requiring that of theists in my question, I just wanted to distinguish between various types of things that people might use to arrant a belief or conclusion (empirical evidence, logic, feelings, etc.).

          You wrote:
          “If God is, as I have attempted to argue, ineffable, infinite mystery, then we have no choice but to invoke the totality of human experience. ”

          It seems to me that, if God really ineffable, then we can’t know anything about God. That’s what ineffable means. If we can know something about God, then some aspect of God is not ineffable, so God isn’t (totally) ineffable.

          My request is that we all try to use language precisely, and say just what we mean and mean just what we say. I don’t (yet) see how you did that with your comment about God being ineffable.

          Like

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Thanks for the clarification. No, I personally do not appeal to to what you have called empirical evidence to justify my belief in God, at least not primarily. Certainly the alleged resurrection of Jesus might count as evidence, but it’s difficult to know how much weight to give it in the absence of a belief in God. At the very least the events of Easter Sunday and afterwards do raise questions. I now that naturalists will of course insist on a naturalistic explanation for the belief of the Apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead.

            Equally as powerful as empirical evidence are the lives of the saints.

            Like

  11. brian says:

    Sammy:

    I am tired out by all this correspondence. I just wrote a long piece to prinzler, so this is going to be brief. I read what you wrote to me and some of what you said to Father Aidan. I’m not sure if this will address what you are asking.

    First, while metaphysical arguments are not apodictic, I think they can be persuasive. In my opinion, if one can distinguish between contingent and necessary being, the rational plausibility for God can be established. This is a warrant beyond mere fideistic belief. Honestly, I don’t care if others find it less persuasive. I judge based on my intellect and reason, not theirs.

    Second, Christians and Jews claim that God has intervened in history, in addition to the kind of “sustaining of existence” that is open to metaphysical inquiry. Now, I think that Hart’s distinguishing between gods and faeiries as cosmic, “ontically available” beings as opposed to a truly transcendent source of being is intellectually meaningful. If you don’t, you don’t. So, the nature of the subject that is acting in history as Jews and Christians assert is different from a claim that a Zeus or Oberon might be acting in history. Beyond that, of course, there is the assertion that a narrative within history with a transcendent source provides meaning to existence.

    So far as I know, there isn’t a lot of literature claiming that Zeus or fairies are engaged in an on-going project in history with universal implications.

    I don’t see how one could “neutrally” examine this. The orthodox tradition has always claimed that it was only within belief that one would be able to determine the truth-revealing capacity of revelation. Hence, the warrant can make sense to those who believe. Those who don’t will see it as a spurious, irrational choice.

    Like

  12. brian says:

    Hopeful Lurker:

    I think you are confusing optimism with hope.

    Sorry that your religious experience was one of dread. There is a lot of bad theology out there. Such does not impugn the possibility of a good theology.

    I’d like to know what kind of secular hope can authentically address death. Are you resigned to the death of your loved ones, the kind of grave pessimism espoused by the likes of Bertrand Russell? How is that really hopeful? One might find a way to assert hope, but I will suspect sophistry is involved.

    Like

    • Hopeful Lurker says:

      Brian,
      Perhaps my comment reads that I do confuse hope/optimism. I know the difference, and thankfully have both. Hope, for one, because I’m no longer tied to apocolyptic theories of the future, such as worldwide destruction being imminent at some point. Not that widespread destruction couldn’t actually happen, via nuclear war or natural disaster, but that to an extent we humans can work to have a positive effect on the world and thus hopefully avoid nuclear war, or reasonably secure ourselves and societies from various natural occurences. Optimism comes because I believe that working together on these issues is completely feasible and achievable provided, again, that we do the work on a difficult, but not exactly impossible task. Essentially, I no longer believe in fallen nature. Re-reading this, I can’t help but think I’m writing like a cheerleader or someone singing Kum-bay-yah or whatever. It sounds corny, but I honestly no longer dread the future like I used to.

      Death, well, how to address that? I’m far from someone that should be any authority on how secularity can address it. I’ve not read any Bertrand Russell yet, so I don’t know what he says about it. It happens. It’s part of everyone’s future. I’ve had close relatives and friends die as have most of us. We grieve, it sucks, we try to make the best of what we have after we pick up the pieces and carry on. We cope how we’re able. I view it as part of life. I no longer believe in heaven/hell/hades/sheol, etc, so I’m not worried if my non-Christian, non-Catholic, non-Orthodox, non-pick your denomination that has the right theology, are in hell or not. Hell/heaven doesn’t exist in some nether-region, but you can find both right here on Earth.

      You speak of theology. Well, I love it now more than ever. The more liberal, the better. I love the fact that I can now look at Scripture in an honest way and take it for what it is, and not suffer myself or someone else to beat me over the head about what a sinner I am.

      These are just my experiences/thoughts, etc. I am in no way attempting to convert you to my side of things. No single person, book or occurence convinced me either. It was rather a symphony of things/events that eventually led to losing faith. Hey, it happens, and I’m extremely grateful for it.

      Like

      • brian says:

        Hopeful:

        You might want to at least look over the Amazon reviews for NT Wright’s book, serendipitously entitled Surprised by Hope. I also find the kind of eschatology you describe off-putting. Fortunately, I don’t think it is the best or only available Christian interpretation.

        I can only say that I don’t find any worldview that is resigned to death particularly hopeful. That may be the best one can do, but then one is left, like the Roman poet Virgil, with lacrimae rerum, the tears of things.

        Like

        • Hopeful Lurker says:

          Thanks, brian. We’re just on different wavelengths. While I may die, the world lives on. No need for any personal afterlife to have hope. While I’m no fan of NT Wright, I’ll check the reviews out.

          Like

  13. brian says:

    prinzler:

    I’ve tried to take your inquiries seriously. I’ve done my best to be as lucid as I could. I’ve taken a lot of time to do so. I’m sorry you find it obfuscating and “academic.” I suppose my answer is that someone else may be able to offer a simpler explanation, but not moi. My words are meaningful, even if you think I am playing a rhetorical game to hide a paucity of substance.

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    • prinzler says:

      I want to be very clear that I do not think that you are playing a game with me. I trust your sincerity, I only mean that I think your approach is misguided in its obscurity. I’ve had a good conversation with you, I’ve learned a bit more about how (some) believers view things, and that’s all good.

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  14. brian says:

    prinzler:

    Faith is a risk. Happiness is a risk. Marriage is a risk.

    The verification involved is the kind that comes from on-going relationship; and of course, there are errors and misunderstandings. If you like, theology is art more than science; the knowledge of love is not static information. The possibility for deception is real, but that does not equate to a view that there is nothing but deception.

    And now, really, I am done.

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    • prinzler says:

      Brian, thank you for the conversation. I have a few things more to say.

      I’m glad to hear you agree that the possibility for deceiving ourselves is real. I agree that that does not mean that we always deceive ourselves. But you are still ignoring the crucial point: we need a way to tell our deceptions from our non-deceptions. Otherwise, we’re left wondering whether some conclusion is a deception or not, and nowhere to go from there. Which also means we should not accept a proposition until we have applied some sort of check against deception, honest mistake, etc.

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      • brian says:

        How do you know your beloved loves you? Are you sure? Can you be absolutely certain? Don’t we in our everyday lives make all kinds of complex calculations that are rooted in logic and reason, but also emotion and intuition and past history and maybe even what Pascal called “cardiognosis.”

        I don’t think there is a neutral starting point from which to acquire evidence; even the selection of what constitutes evidence, how to proceed in an inquiry, what questions are paramount, what is a meaningful question, etc. “always already” betray a prior allegiance to some presupposed “metanarrative” about what the world is like.

        In short, I don’t think the kind of starting point you are after is possible. We always begin with a leap of some kind and we determine the rational sufficiency of our choice from within that choice. Later on, we may discover an inadequacy that we do not have the resources to address. If it’s acute enough, we may look to rival versions of understanding, but we never begin outside of some version of understanding.

        Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry is somewhat helpful on all this.

        Thanks for making a liar out of me, btw. Gotta run some errands. I appreciate the good conversation.

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  15. brian says:

    prinzler:

    This is a response to your most recent comment to Jonathan.

    You appear to me to be arguing for a single method of inquiry or verification for any and all truth claims. If not, then you will have to correct my misconception. If you believe that a single mode of inquiry ought to be univocally effective for any subject, surely this is not correct. The scientific method will not give one any kind of understanding of Homer’s Iliad and a deeply inadequate understanding of human friendship, for instance.

    One can only evade this by artificially constricting knowledge to what falls within the scope of one’s favored mode of inquiry. (This is a repetition of a claim made numerous times already.) I know a lot of individuals who have contempt for art. They don’t think it has cognitive value and don’t consider it knowledge — to them, since there isn’t a single answer like a mathematical sum, there isn’t any truth beyond subjective opinion. But this is simply the aspersions of the ignorant. A work of art is actually a metaxis (to use the Platonic term Jonathan referenced); art is both the artifact created by the poet/painter/musician/sculptor etc. and all potential valid interpretations — what a valid interpretation is is open-ended and cannot be predetermined, though this does NOT mean there aren’t bad or totally inept interpretations.

    In any event, the work of art is its capacity to generate responses that are participated in by both the artist and the audience. As a cultural object, it exists as a mutual work of originary artist and comprehending audience. (Technically, the post-moderns object to the notion of an origin, an artist, or a self, but let’s leave such abstruse criticism aside. You already think I’m too academic.) If one is confronted with a society of knuckleheads, the potential fecundity of the art object is left unactualized. A person who claims Dante or Mozart is boring or useless only condemns themselves. NOTE: this means that judgment here is not universal. The person with developed taste and understanding has insight into the truth of the work; the philistine does not.

    One could not conceivably restrict the way one appreciates Proust to the way one determines the boiling point of a particular liquid. By analogy, what is true of art will also be true of God. Trying to use the exact same tools and criteria for everything is like thinking you can bake a cake with a hammer. Only, since God is not an object in the world, the mode of knowing will necessarily be unique.

    Further, it was a medieval truism that one knows a thing according to the mode of the knower. You are creating an abstraction, not how a human being actually knows. I suggest you google Newman’s illative sense. You assume that any mode of knowing that involves emotion is purely emotive and therefore an ersatz form of thought that is really an irrational substitute. You need a more complex and perceptive appreciation for what feelings are.

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    • prinzler says:

      Hi Brian:

      I”m not arguing for a single method. I just want any method to be able to have checks against making mistakes, fooling oneself, etc. Everyone keeps talking about the scientific method, as if that is the core of my argument, when it is not. This straw man should stop. I have great respect for the scientific method, but that’s not what I’m arguing here.

      I just want (1) a way for claims to be identified as ones that need verification, which includes whether god exists in some fashion, (2) agreement on the need for some method to verify those claims, and (3) a way to evaluate whether that method works. Some have brought up “you just feel it in your heart” as a method, but I’ve identified serious problems with that method.

      If we can have different methods, that doesn’t mean that *any* method works equally well.

      Proust presents no great problem. For instance, my claim is that I think it’s great how Proust uses the metaphor of video games to make his point about loneliness. This claim fails because one cannot verify that Proust wrote about video games. All you have to do is to check what he wrote. Now, one can make a claim about Proust that is more difficult to verify. But the principle is the same. Also, one can easily make a claim about Proust that is easy to verify.

      A claim about Mozart being is more about the person who is bored than it is about Mozart. So what? You just have to be clear about what type of claim you’re making (is it about the artwork objectively, the perceiver’s subjective response, or some combination?).

      Like

      • brian says:

        Hi prinzler:

        Okay. No one’s interested in engaging a straw man. In my view, secular atheists routinely straw man Christian claims or find inarticulate or not very bright exemplars and beat them up as if that were somehow decisive. I asked if my impression was correct or not. Apparently, it is not and I am glad that you are open to inquiry beyond the limits of the scientific method. This further indicates that you recognize that truth is broader than what the scientific method can pronounce upon. Many today do not go that far and its too bad for them.

        You are interested in using language precisely. That is a fine quality, though I suggest that there are limits to precision. Descartes wanted to reduce reality to what could be captured by the “clear and precise idea,” but it may be that reality is immune to that kind of capture. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be precise in our language, but one should have a healthy respect for the elusiveness of the real.

        Talk about God is particularly difficult. To ground all this, one would have to broach the nature of language, of metaphor in particular, I think, as well as the concept of revelation. Christian theology is paradoxical and paradox tends to offend the “euclidean mind.” Just as the notion of a Triune God is “foolishness” to the “wisdom of the world,” so are assertions that one can, in fact, speak meaningfully of a God, who, nonetheless, transcends our capacity to comprehend. Rowan Williams’ book, “The Edge of Words” offers some helpful reflections on these matters. Certainly, it is nothing that can be adequately addressed in a forum like this.

        To be frank, I don’t think that there is a method in the way you probably mean it to “verify” the existence or nature of God. Method implies a level of control that is contrary to what theologians call grace. The primary notion of revelation is that God communicates what we could never grasp through our own efforts. If God does communicate, this necessarily reaches us where we are, so it is through events that are temporally situated within a culture and engaging the fullness of nature. I think people have tried to point you towards a “holistic” manner of understanding that appears to you to be messy, irrational, and without method.

        Eva Brann has written a work called Feeling our Feelings. She’s erudite and the work shows that the contempt some modern approaches have for feeling is not consistent with much of the best thought on the passions or feeling in the past. I’m sure you’ll never read it and to be frank, she’s a rather dull writer in my opinion, but you should know that there are important thinkers who would dispute dismissing “feel it in your heart” as mere sloppy emotivism. (It may, of course, often be that, but then again, it may not.)

        Apparently I was unclear in the point I was making about art. I was trying to draw a distinction between the nature of authority and judgment that is germane for science versus what is germane for art. Science, in my view, has a more restricted scope and it appeals to conventions of repeatability, experimentation, quantification, and universal verifiability. Well and good. What I was trying to get at is the nature of art is the contrary on almost all of that. Certainly, inspiration is unique and personal. The “verification” of what is discovered is not open to someone who is “diligent” to learn a method. Further, while specialists in a particular science open their truth claims to peer review and replication of the experiment, the kind of meaning that is discoverable in art does not fall within the purview of that kind of analysis and judgement. In art, the wisdom of the person gifted with insight is more a witness that others may or may not come to appreciate, rather than something subject to method and universal assent.

        If you are also interested in avoiding straw men, prinzler, one must be disabused of the notion that people who believe in God are simply delusional, however clever, trapped in a dream with no means of verifying their faith. I have tried to indicate to you how some form of faith is involved in every person’s path in life. I have also pointed out how one “always already” begins within some received mode of understanding. No one starts from a completely neutral stance and who weighs options and evidence without prior commitment. Everyone, whether Christians or Buddhists or secular humanists, what have you, determines within their on-going experience of life the value and explanatory capacity of the life narrative that guides their actions and interpretations. Undoubtedly, the mass of people are not philosophers or perhaps critical thinkers, but even ordinary people will be confronted by crises that will challenge their received understanding. How they work that out is complex and the judgement involved will be irreducibly personal, even if one may appeal to various authorities to guide judgement.

        I doubt this process can be comprehended by any method, but that does not make it an indulgence of irreality or something outside of reason. The medievals used to distinguish between the ratio and the intellectus. The intellectus would include an aesthetic sense of beauty, intuition, feeling, the capacity of the person as a whole to know. In my opinion, the fully rational approach to truth recognizes the intrinsic value of the latter, even its superiority to “methods” that dismiss such as untrustworthy emotive experiences.

        The discernment of the wise man is delicate, historically nuanced; it may require a complex judgement — the neurotic may be both mentally troubled and aware of some aspect of reality “normal” people miss. This was one of Foucault’s points and I don’t see how one can completely dismiss his suggestion. Regardless, there is truth and there is risk and no manner of verification can remove the latter or make truth so apparent that all will be forced to admit its force.

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        • prinzler says:

          Brian, when you say, “Just as the notion of a Triune God is “foolishness” to the “wisdom of the world,” so are assertions that one can, in fact, speak meaningfully of a God” aren’t you trying to have it both ways: that one can’t speak meaningfully of a God, and then elsewhere you proceed to speak meaningfully of a God? If one can’t speak meaningfully of a god, then that’s the deistic god, I think. God as merely the creator, and on everything after that we are silent. Atheists have a lot more respect for the god of deism than Christianity for exactly this reason.

          You have yet to offer any reason why anyone – yourself included – should expect that what you claim about God that is not verifiable – via revelation, for instance – is true. Especially when, throughout the world and throughout history, there have been multiple incompatible revelations. The process of revelation fails as means to help us be sure about what we believe for the same reason that feelings are a poor method – one quickly runs into incompatible claims that can’t be resolved. How do you know that your revelation is true? That’s the same as asking, “How do you make sure (verify) that your revelation is true?”

          I’m not claiming that feeling it in your heart is sloppy or anything else, except that it is unreliable and a poor thing to rely on, given mutually incompatible feelings between different people about the same issue. It is inherent in the nature of using feelings to guide oneself in this area that you run into this brick wall.

          “I have tried to indicate to you how some form of faith is involved in every person’s path in life. ” And I indicated that, depending on whether you mean “blind faith” or “confidence given evidence” or something else, faith may or may not be involved. Faith without verification is a poor means of making these decisions.

          “No one starts from a completely neutral stance. . . .” True, but this doesn’t mean that anything goes. We all must agree that a=a in order to even have a conversation, but that doesn’t mean you get to make up any theorem you want without proper justification. You’re trying to use this idea to introduce claims that are not appropriate in a way that a=a certainly is.

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          • brian says:

            Prinzler:

            Your assertions and the interpretation of what I have said follow from your particular commitments. I believe such an interpretation misses the substance and import of what I have said. Any response I could make to your views is contained in what I have already stated, often to the point of reiteration.

            From my perspective, you are missing the point and distorting my meaning. Since I have done my best to explain what I believe and think, I can offer no further elucidation to your efforts at understanding. Your sense of language, revelation, verification, and rationality appear to me jejune, but so does the entire Enlightenment tradition that largely grounds your sensibility.

            I wish you the best in your search for truth and I am confident that the God who sustains your being and gifts you with intellect will guide your path.

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  16. Jonathan says:

    I’m bowing out, folks, as I will only start repeating myself at this point. The basic attitudes and presuppositions have been clearly delineated. As I said in the first sentence I wrote in this thread, this kind of thing never seems to get anywhere. That that should be the case is actually one of the propositions, if you want to call it that, of my religion. The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, and to the writing of books there is no end. You will not be happy with this formulation, pinzler, but I called that from the beginning as well. I wish you all a good night or a good morrow, as the case may be. This has at least been invigorating.

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  17. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    “The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (God Still Matters, p. 59)

    I included this citation in my article “God is not Odin …” McCabe well states what I believe is the most compelling rejoinder to atheistic critique. Christians really do not know what they are talking about when they speak about “God.” We need not be embarrassed about this fact. God is God. That he has revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ does not diminish the Mystery. It is precisely as Mystery that he reveals himself.

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  18. prinzler says:

    Brian, if you’re done with the conversation, that’s fine, but when you say,

    “Any response I could make to your views is contained in what I have already stated, often to the point of reiteration.”

    that is, ahem, a verifiable claim. I do not see your response to my point about “having it both ways.” Of course, someone could always show that I’m wrong via sufficient evidence. I’m trying to make claims that allow this sort of check and balance.

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  19. brian says:

    I have answered you. You just don’t understand or reject what I have said.

    “If you can comprehend it, it is not God.” This was a well-known aphorism in the Middle Ages. Yet the same people who gave assent to this also believed that God had communicated to human beings both by creating the world and through historical intervention that resulted in revelatory truth.

    This appears contradictory to you, but it did not strike them so. This is what I meant by the inherently paradoxical quality of Christian truth. If one wants to go further, many on this board have adverted to the path. One does not begin to comprehend love outside of love. The verification is within the life of faith.

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    • prinzler says:

      OK, Brian, but I need clarification on a few things.

      1. I presume you’d say that the entirety of who/what God is is beyond human comprehension, but apparently *some* of who/what God is is comprehensible, correct?

      2. When you say God communicates through historical intervention, what do you mean?

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  20. brian says:

    Prinzler:

    Aquinas noted that “human thought has not been able to track down the essence of a single gnat.” If one sees an infinite mystery in a gnat — or a grain of sand like William Blake, the perduring Mystery of God is not such a stretch.

    I think if you had the existential experience of wonder, the basic astonishment before existence, and understood it how it was understood by Plato or Aristotle, none of this would seem so opaque to you.

    I don’t think one can actually use quantifiable measures. God, in Himself, is simple. It is creatures that are complex. We know the whole God, but we know God imperfectly. If you want to think of that as knowing some of God, I suppose that is alright if one is aware one is not using language precisely in doing so.

    I am not getting into a philosophy of revelation or trying to explain to you how the idea of a God who intervenes in history is intellectually respectable. Honestly, who is going to decide that? If some group abjures the idea and decides to treat those who don’t as mental pygmies, so be it. You have adopted a mode of understanding and a criteria with a set of definitions, etc. that preclude revelation as a meaningful concept. Either your premises are wrong or revelation is a meaningless concept.

    In the course of our discussion, I have noted a number of works that I think are helpful. I recommend The Absence and Unknowability of God by Christos Yannaras and The Religious Sense by Luigi Giussani as texts that discuss in interesting ways some of the issues you have broached.

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    • prinzler says:

      Brian, If knowing the whole of God imperfectly, as you put it, is a better way to say we know some of God, then I’m still confused as to what you mean by those words.

      Do you mean knowing something about God like, he is infinite? If this is correct, then we shouldn’t say that we know that God is infinite imperfectly, I would think. If God is infinite, and we know that, then I would not apply the word “imperfectly” to that proposition. Would you? If so, please explain.

      Or do you mean “knowing” in a more holistic sense? If so, I’m not sure what that holistic type of knowing is, actually, Can you give me an example from everyday life about knowing something holistically? Every example I come up with is merely the sum of the parts, which are knowing smaller things. I can’t come up with an example of knowing in which the sum is greater than the parts, and I think holistic knowing would have to be greater than the sum of the parts; otherwise, we’d just say that we know (un-holistically) the parts.

      Thanks.

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  21. brian says:

    Prinzler:

    Hart has some things to say about language and God in his recent book. I think they are germane, but he evidently annoyed many of those who represent atheist views. Analytic philosophy tends to think of language in a manner that trivializes, even as it pretends at strict logic and clarity. I’m afraid some of your attempts remind me of that.

    God has no parts, so if one knows God at all, it doesn’t make sense to say that one knows some of God. That’s why I chose imperfect knowing, to avoid implying quantity when it is inappropriate to do so. You’ve also been warned, however, that language breaks down when one attempts to speak of God. If one is unhappy with that, one has to just deal or walk away.

    One’s encounter with God shares this much with our encounter with any reality. One might, of course, dissent from the idea of a whole of any kind. Does it make sense to speak of an organism, a thing, etc. or are these just perceptual appearances that disguise a fundamental relation without substance, as Buddhism teaches, for example? However, if one posits a thing, one doesn’t encounter separable attributes. In Thomist terms, accidents always inhere in substances. So, concretely, one doesn’t know the intelligence of Harry or the beauty of Susan. One simply knows Harry and Susan.

    God is analogically like that, but also always different, which is why it is difficult to think and talk about God on a conceptual level. Fortunately, God is not a concept, but a Person. (No. Don’t ask about it. I wrote a dissertation largely dealing with Personhood, but this is enough.) At a minimum, personhood involves liberty, creativity, openness to novelty. Even at a natural level, we know each other imperfectly, but the person we know is a whole, not a part. One could quibble with that and talk about social roles and whether it makes sense to talk about a self at all that comprehends change over time. One could, in short, endlessly quibble. At some point, you need to just kiss the girl.

    I”m not aiming for anything fancy by holistic. I am referencing the kind of knowing that involves logic, reason, intuition, aesthetic sense, history, etc. — that broader understanding of human cognition that I’ve been alluding to in prior posts. Oh, and I think we encounter realities that are greater than the sum of the parts all the time. You need to study Goethe and gain a greater appreciation for wholes (Cf. Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature.)

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    • prinzler says:

      “it doesn’t make sense to say that one knows some of God”

      I don’t have to be for or against analytic philosophy to see that your words make sense there. They are intelligible and understandable. So, that’s great, you’re saying that you know God as a whole (even if it is imperfect).

      So, all I’m looking for is communication from you that is equally clear. One doesn’t have to get into analytic philosophy to know that if two people aren’t using words in an agreed upon fashion, communication will not happen. This isn’t an issue about God, it’s an issue about you and me communicating. That’s why I think it is perfectly fine to say that we can’t know God, or that God is ineffable. The problem is, one can hide an awful lot of bad thinking in not being clear and not using words precisely (or not all, if appropriate).

      I’m fine if language breaks down when talking about God. But the proper thing to do, in that case, is to then not talk about God (or at least those aspects of God that are ineffable, versus those that we can understand), to not make claims about God using something like language which is inadequate to the task.

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      • brian says:

        Yes, I think the Christian tradition has always recognized that there are some places where silence is the best response, but it is a silence of communion and a recognition of a “greater than,” not an absence of meaning.

        When one is in love, it is natural to constantly babble about the beloved and to praise them and want others to praise the excellence of the beloved. But there is also a fullness of love that defeats language. In the most profound experiences of love, language suddenly falls into hushed, wondrous joy. The ineffability of God is the ineffability of Love.

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        • prinzler says:

          Brian, that was so NOT where I was going. ; )

          Don’t you agree that, if something is beyond words, that one shouldn’t talk about it? Or, at the very least, preface one’s words by saying something like, “This topic is ultimately ineffable, so the words I say will only be somewhat close to the reality or the truth of my topic, and will actually fall short, but are as close as it’s possible to get.”

          Otherwise, won’t communication between people not happen?

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  22. brian says:

    If something is utterly beyond words, no decision will have to be made, because one won’t have the capacity to speak of it and one probably wouldn’t recognize it to begin with. The absolutely and radically unknown remains unremarked.

    I think it’s perfectly fine to say, “hey, we’re only going to be able to gesture at something my words can’t properly address.” That’s probably a pretty good definition of theology.

    Oh, and I was just trying to subvert notions of silence as an indication of the meaningless. There’s a kind of knowing that is “unknowing” (it’s a common theme among mystics.)

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    • prinzler says:

      OK, so here’s the kicker, and you gotta trust me that I didn’t even know I was going to go here when I brought up the issue of clarity. This is only a hypothesis, I’m still rolling what I will say below around on my tongue.

      It seems like a claim is only as good as how clear our language is to express it. You’ve heard, probably, the claim that God isn’t omnipotent because he can’t make a rock so big he can’t lift it. I agree with others that that claim doesn’t work because the claim itself is incoherent. We can’t make sense out of the idea of a rock so big something omnipotent can lift it. It’s a contradiction in terms, and internal contradiction, that defeats the claim before it even gets off the ground.

      In a similar way, the extent that one can’t be precise or clear about a proposition is the same extent that we should doubt, or withhold assent from, that proposition. This is one reason why looking at mathematics as a language is a good analogy for science: it’s the right language to be talking, and enables us to be very precise.

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      • Jonathan says:

        prinzler,

        I feel obliged to emerge briefly from my retirement from this thread to point out that even the most basic, rudimentary modes of language are not as univocal as you would probably like them to be. For example, do you know the root of the word “assent”? It has to do with that nasty word that came up a little while back, “feeling.” The Latin-root of sense (“sentire”) and the Germanic root of feel (“fühlen) mean similar things. “Sentire” is also related to German “sinnen” (to reflect, consider), which in Old German meant to move forward, go, desire. Language is rooted in the body and phenomenal and affective life (not to mention all sorts of historical and cultural contingency) and this governs how we can use it, even at its most abstract and regardless of how conscious we are of its roots. Or take clarity and precision, which you’ve invoked. The first word has to do with brightness, the second with cutting something off — very different. Something can be completely clear yet imprecise, or very precise but not clear, in the sense of illuminating understanding. There isn’t a proposition in the world that can’t be shredded with a little etymological legerdemain, or a little historicizing. So I suggest to you that clarity or precision are not the most important reasons why we might assent to a proposition, although someone might assent to a proposition because he *feels* that it is clear, even if the guy next to him can point out a dozen ways it isn’t.

        The contemporary literature on what language is, how it works (despite being rife with ambiguity and polyvalence), is simply vast. But, somewhat analogous to the question of religion, if you want to know, to get a sense (there’s that “sentire” again!) for how tricky and beautiful language is, the best thing to do is not to read about it, but to read the best of it. Read a great novelist or poet and try to think about what’s really going on when you do that, rather than merely entertain the book as an idea, a divertissement. Surely you’ve done this. George Steiner’s book Real Presences is the only critical title I’ll mention in this regard. No, scratch that: you might also profit from Walker Percy’s essays collected under the title The Message in the Bottle.

        Someone should make a tally of the books mentioned in this thread.

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        • prinzler says:

          Hi Joanthan:

          You’re making it too difficult. First, I think you’re proposing that the etymology of words *change* their current meaning or connotation. But this is the genetic fallacy. How many words could I find who etymology have nothing to do with how the words are currently used? Now, words may mean different things regardless of their etymology, but that’s exactly the issue I brought up: to communicate, we must be clear with each other about what words mean.

          Secondly, if we took your point seriously, we’d never get through daily life, yet we do. My point is that we must communicate with at least the same amount of clarity that allows us to succeed in daily life, and sometimes quite complex communication issues daily life. We should have at least that standard.

          You’re making it too difficult. Communication is hard enough.

          Like

          • Jonathan says:

            prinzler, I’m not making anything into anything. The world (including language) is what it is. I haven’t asserted anything here that much better and abler minds haven’t said a thousand times before me. It’s not really my point about language, but one that has been made by linguists, literary theorists and cultural critics of proven merit. Communication is indeed hard enough — as the length of this thread, if not the rancorous incomprehension of history, attests. We just keep talking past one another. Were the world — by which I mean material, psyche, language — as transparent as you want it to be, discussions of this nature would have been resolved millenia ago. But I have already pointed that out, and so am now repeating myself as I predicted would happen. Back to “retirement” for me.

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          • prinzler says:

            Jonathan, you wrote, “But I have already pointed that out, and so am now repeating myself as I predicted would happen. ”

            You’re not the only one repeating themselves.

            “The world (including language) is what it is. I haven’t asserted anything here that much better and abler minds haven’t said a thousand times before me.”

            I can say the same thing about my point, too.

            “Communication is indeed hard enough — as the length of this thread, if not the rancorous incomprehension of history, attests. We just keep talking past one another.”

            That’s exactly why we must try to be as clear as we can be, and to not obfuscate with language. It’s hard enough.

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  23. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Scanning through the comments of this thread, I can see why atheists find Christians, particularly of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic persuasion, frustrating. Both Orthodox and Catholic believers really do believe that God is infinite mystery and that the language we use about him is necessarily analogical, metaphorical, symbolic. Even a scholastic theologian like St Thomas Aquinas, certainly one of the most rigorous thinkers in the history of Western thought and someone who did not shy away from writing a lot about God, insisted that God is unknowable. We are united to God, declares Thomas, “only as to one unknown to us.” Hence are are not surprised that our language breaks, as it were, when we talk about God. We would be suspicious if it did not.

    My impression is that our atheist friends who have contributed to this thread are used to discussing these questions either with those in the Bible-based evangelical tradition or with those whose theology has been shaped by the analytic tradition or simultaneously both. Is my impression accurate, prinzler and Sammy? Both of these groups have a different way of understanding theological language. They do not find language for God to be a stumbling block. Some will insist on the univocity of our language for God. Both of these groups are as uncomfortable with classical theism and the apophatic approach to God as the folks over at Debunking Christianity.

    In response to this article, someone over at Debunking Christianity quipped that we Christians are always moving the goalposts. I suppose that the apophatic approach looks like that to outsiders, especially to those who are not well acquainted with the patristic and medieval theological tradition. In response, all I and my fellow catholic Christians can do is note that we have been affirming God as ineffable mystery centuries and centuries before we had to respond to the atheist critique. Hence our impatience with rhetoric that reduces the transcendent, infinite Creator to the status of a mythological being like fairies, leprechauns, or the Olympian deities. I hope this thread has at least clarified why this reduction is thoroughly inappropriate.

    I don’t know if this observation is germane to the present discussion or not, but I thought I’d mention it.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Fr Aidan, I think what you’re saying is germane. I would only add to it, coming off what I just wrote, that 20th century and contemporary thought about language and its cultural context and ramifications, which has usually not been developed by catholic Christians, also has a decidedly apophatic bent. A great deal of the frustration with atheistic complaints about how traditional Christians argue might as well be described as frustration with people who seem to insist on inhabiting an Enlightenment worldview that was ousted from humanities departments (excluding analytic philosophy holdouts) a couple of generations ago.

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      • prinzler says:

        Aidan, as I have said before, I have no problem with defining God as an ineffable mystery, much like a deistic god. And many atheists have sympathies with deism. That God might be ineffable does not remove the responsibility to not obfuscate when making propositions. If one’s goal is to not make a proposition, then symbology, metaphor, etc., may well be fine.

        The problem is that there is a proposition behind all the mystery, at some point: God is real, God exists, God is, in the sense that one is not an atheist. It seems like lack of consistency and clarity, and sometimes plain obscurantism, are used as an excuse to not meet an acceptable standard when defending a proposition on which everything else relies (and we haven’t even gotten to good evidence for the resurrection, etc.).

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  24. brian says:

    Hi. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to this dialogue. I particularly enjoyed the back and forth with prinzler and the comments of jonathan and father kimel. Father, thanks for the hospitality on this. I think your most recent remarks are very cogent.

    I already feel a bit like the guest who stayed too long, but at the risk of offending decorum, I’d like to beg everyone’s indulgence in order to share two longish quotes from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation that I think express my own views pretty well and in an elegant fashion.

    “It can easily be seen that a purely emotional worship, a life of instinct, an orgiastic religion, is no spiritual life. But also, a merely rational life, a life of conscious thought and rationally directed activity, is not a fully spiritual life. In particular it is a characteristic modern error to reduce man’s spirituality to mere “mentality,” and to confine the whole spiritual life purely and simply in the reasoning mind. Then the spiritual life is reduced to a matter of “thinking: — of verbalizing, rationalizing, etc. But such a life is truncated and incomplete.

    The true spiritual life is a life neither of dionysian orgy nor of apollonian clarity: it transcends both. It is a life of wisdom, a life of sophianic love. In Sophia, the highest wisdom-principle, all the greatness and majesty of the unknown that is God and all that is rich and maternal in His creation are united inseparably, as paternal and maternal principles, the uncreated Father and created Mother-Wisdom.

    Faith is what opens to us this higher realm of unity, of strength, of light, of sophianic love where there is no longer the limited and fragmentary light provided by rational principles, but where the Truth is One and Undivided and takes all to itself in the wholeness of Sapientia, or Sophia. When St. Paul said that Love was the fulfillment of the Law, he meant that by the Spirit of Christ we were incorporated into Christ, Himself the “power and wisdom of God,” so that Christ HImself thenceforth became our own life, and light and love and wisdom. Our full spiritual life is life in wisdom, life in Christ. The darkness of faith bears fruit in the light of wisdom.

    *

    What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash — at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

    For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

    Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”

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    • prinzler says:

      Brian, my view is that talk about light, dance, unity, love, etc., is a fine thing, unless one is talking about propositions like, “God is the creator of the universe,” and the like, in which case taking the approach you suggest is going to open you up to being forced to accept some other propositions, based on exactly what you base your propositions about God, that you will find you are unable to accept.

      Like

  25. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Sammy writes:

    Question 1) How is choosing to accept one claim NOT epistemologically equivalent to choosing to accept another?

    Corollary A) Of how many distinguishably separate categories of “acceptance” are humans capable? 2? 3? 4? More? Please enumerate these supposedly differentiable categories of human “acceptance” which you are implying you have successfully identified.

    Corollary B) Please explain what method you are using that makes it possible for you to successfully distinguish between one of these enumerated categories of human acceptance and another.

    I’m afraid, Sammy, I really do not understanding what you are challenging me to do. In my replies to you (here and here) I have tried to specify why the transcendent Deity cannot be treated as a fairie-changeling, elf, unicorn, or even a deity like Zeus or Odin. Would you agree that before we can even address the question of epistemological warrant, we first need to agree on the nature of the “object” we are discussing? Before we can go searching for something, we have to have some idea of what we are looking for; otherwise, we’ll probably just miss it. Hence if the hypothesized God of Christian faith is radically different from finite beings, then we should expect different epistemological criteria to be employed. Even if this argument does not directly address your concern, does it at least make sense to you?

    You ask, “How is choosing to accept one claim NOT epistemologically equivalent to choosing to accept another?” I thought I had addressed this question when I suggested a way we might go about confirming or disconfirming a claim that Santa Claus exists. I thought my answer was commonsensical enough. In the absence of empirical evidence and reliable testimony, precisely the kind of evidence that a scientist, historian, or jury might accept, I acknowledged that the existence of Santa Claus was exceptionally unlikely (please don’t tell my grandson!). If we were to apply the same approach to Michael Cleary, would we not say that his belief in the existence of faerie changelings lacked sufficient justification or warrant? Don’t we agree on this?

    But apparently, according to your last comment, even this reply on my part has missed the point. So clearly I do not understand what you are asking of me.

    In an earlier comment you wrote:

    Remember that epistemology pertains to how one can justifiably said to “know” something. Can one justify claiming to “know” something in the absence of data? That’s what’s at issue here.

    And that is precisely what I thought was at issue, too. I thought you were suggesting something like this: if you agree the believing in fairies is unreasonable, because of the lack of confirming empirical evidence, then why is belief in God not equally unreasonable, since you also cannot provide evidence of the same kind. Yet with this latest comment of yours, I confess that I am at a loss to understand what you are asking of me or why you have found my previous comments irrelevant to the what you stated earlier to be the real issue.

    You write:

    In order to defend the position that your choice to accept is NOT epistemologically equivalent to Michael Cleary’s choice to accept, you need to FIRST to address Corollary A and demonstrate that there are at least TWO distinguishably separate categories of “acceptance” from which humans are capable of selecting! Thus far, no such demonstration has been remotely attempted. None.

    I think may have have matters backwards. You appear to be putting epistemology before ontology, theory before the actual experience and knowing of reality. I have already demonstrated (that’s probably too strong word, since you obviously do not believe I have demonstrated anything; but let’s keep it for the moment) that the knowing of the transcendent Creator is not equivalent to the knowing of finite objects; hence a distinction between believing in the existence of God and believing in the existence of fairie changelings (or my neighbor across the street) is necessarily posited. Bingo! Corollary A is addressed.

    I am resisting any and every move that seeks to squeeze faith in God into a theory of warrant constructed for the knowing of finite beings. It’s not, and cannot be, a matter of one epistemological size fits all. In fact, I imagine there we would probably use different criteria for neutrinos, mathematical objects, and physical objects that we can see and touch—but I’ll leave that question to those who know their epistemology. We do not begin with “categories of acceptance” (do philosophers talk about “categories of acceptance”?) and then ask whether our beliefs fit into these categories. I refer you to Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy.

    While it may sound like I am evading your questions, Sammy, I do not think that I really am. I am simply refusing to play the game on your terms and by your rules.

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  26. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Sammy writes:

    To demonstrate this, let me briefly return to Halvorson’s candid comment that is so germane to MY question (though nothing to do with the questions to which you, among others, keep offering answers):

    There is a challenge intrinsic to a religion based on some sort of revelation…The challenge is that revealed religions, religions where you had a revelation that occurs historically and is not ongoing…If you take the religion seriously, that means you have to come to the ‘data’ [revelation] that they’ve passed down to you with an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ [accept until forced to reject] attitude

    Why shouldn’t you and I both agree that this is, as Halvorson has admitted to, as simple as an “attitude” that shifts the burden of proof? As Halvorson himself admits, trying to convince himself that holding to this “attitude,” one of approaching “data” with this “accept until forced to reject” stance, is a justifiable move is perhaps the biggest weakness of his christian worldview that makes his life difficult! I would put it to you that what we are witnessing (and experiencing!) is merely a different (biasing) “attitude” with which to approach “data.”

    I watched the Halvorson/Carroll debate. I confess that I was not terribly impressed with Halvorson—in terms of debate performance and clarity of expression, Carroll “won” hands down–but I’m uncertain why you think that Halvorson’s “admission” is so telling. It tells us more about what I guess to be his fundamentalist Reformed background than anything else. Of course how we assess data (whether about Jesus or anything else) is going to be influenced by our fundamental convictions and respective worldviews. There is no uninterpreted data! There are no “pure” facts. Subjectivity is necessarily involved in every act of human knowing. I applaud Halvorson for his honesty, but there’s nothing newsworthy here. Atheists also have their preconceptions and presuppositions, which make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to entertain religious or supernatural claims. If you are convinced, for example, that God does not exist, then you will rule out, from the beginning, any and every hypothesis that a supernatural miracle occurred on Easter morning. Every other natural explanation, no matter how unlikely, will seem more plausible. David Hume raised this skepticism to the status of dogma.

    We are all dogmatists. Scientists are not excluded. Philosophers are not excluded. Skeptics and religious are not excluded. And certainly those of us who engage in internet debate are not excluded. All we can do is acknowledge that this is so and do our best to listen to the claims and interpretations of others. Again I refer you to Michael Polanyi.

    P.S. And yes, the argument that believing in God is equivalent to believing in fairies and trolls is silly and insulting. No thoughtful, rational, serious person should make such a claim.

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    • prinzler says:

      Aidan, you wrote, “There is no uninterpreted data! There are no “pure” facts.”

      But this doesn’t mean that anything is fair game. Also, for all intents and purposes, we accept many facts, minimally, as if they were “pure.” You don’t want your mechanic to subjectively interpret why your car won’t start, charge you hundreds of dollars, and then shrug off your objections because there are no pure facts, especially when hooking up the battery cable that just got a little loose does the trick.

      Also, you wrote, “If you are convinced, for example, that God does not exist, then you will rule out, from the beginning, any and every hypothesis that a supernatural miracle occurred on Easter morning.”

      One does not have to have a prior belief that God does not exist to estimate, as Hume did, that the likelihood of miracle is less than any naturalistic explanation.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Prinzler, your example of the mechanic is interesting, as it supports the claim of many post-modern philosophers that human knowing is always grounded in tradition and community. The mechanic does not come to the engine de novo. He comes to it as one who has been trained and formed. His “epistemolgoical” skills, as it were, have been acquired through mentoring, study, hard work and much trial-and-error. Only thus has he become adept at diagnosing and fixing my engine’s problem. Of course, it may also be the case that his training may inhibit him from correctly diagnosing the problem, if the problem itself presents “symptoms” that do not correspond to his training.

        Regarding Hume, correct me if I’m wrong, but my recollection is that for Hume no amount of human testimony could ever persuade him that an authentic miracle had occurred: naturalistic explanations are always to be preferred. This, in fact, is a working principle for modern historical research. Similarly, modern science methodologically excludes the possible activity and presence of a divine Creator.

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        • prinzler says:

          Aidan, there is a vast difference between being grounded in a tradition and the idea that there are not pure facts. Being trained and formed in a tradition in no way introduces subjectivity into the epistemology of auto mechanics. Perhaps you can understand this if you consider in which tradition you’d stake your treasure or fortune if either was at the hands of a prediction about the weather by a meteorologist or a witch-doctor.

          If symptoms don’t correspond to training, wouldn’t you recommend that the training be adjusted? Not coincidentally, that’s what science attempts.

          Modern science does not rest on David Hume. Lawrence Krauss, of “A Universe from Nothing” fame, I think, has said that miracles are not beyond scientific investigation, and that makes sense to me. If someone was clearly dead for 3 days (lets say their torso was divided cleanly in two, just to make the diagnosis of death uncontroversial) and then was alive again, science would be ALL over that. Do you think scientists would walk away and refuse to learn more?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Prinzler, we have now moved into philosophy and reflection on human knowing. I thought we would eventually get here. This is a huge, controverted topic. No consensus exists, either within the philosophical or scientific communities. It is certainly beyond the little competence that I have.

            I commend to you Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. This book is essential reading in the philosophy of science and epistemology.

            I bid you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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          • prinzler says:

            Aidan, I’m familiar with Polanyi. His ideas are either uncontroversial, only speak to the process by which knowledge is gained (not the objectivity of that knowledge), or misguided, in my opinion. If you have any specifics you’d like to bring up, I’m all ears. For instance, what example of knowledge that cannot be known in the system I’ve been advocating here, but can only be know through Polanyi’s approach, helps to show to anyone, in principle, that any supernatural, religious dogma is true?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Prinzler, I want to thank you for your thoughtful and civil contributions to this thread. With the holidays just upon us, I have to withdraw from the conversation. (I really don’t have much to add anyway to the discussion anyway.) So much to do, so little time. We still don’t have our Xmas tree up and decorated, and my kids start arriving tomorrow.

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          • prinzler says:

            Aidan, thank you for the conversation, I hope your holidays are great.

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