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Ask a Theologian II

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, May 9, 2008.

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  1. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    But to paraphrase Pilate, what is faith? Must it be incompatible with (complete) knowledge? Why? Who says so? People today often assume that "faith" means believing in something that you don't know, or believing in something without evidence, or something like that, but that is only one possible understanding of "faith" and there have been many others. Indeed some people have thought that faith and knowledge are actually exactly the same thing.

    We've talked about this many times in the past. See here and here, for example.

    I see, but I wouldn't call that a philosophical viewpoint. I also think one could estimate the probability of such revelations, at least to some degree. If you had good reason for thinking that nothing divine or supernatural exists then you would have good reason for thinking such revelations extremely unlikely. And if you had good reason for thinking that certain similar revelations had occurred then you would have good reason for thinking such revelations at least possible.

    Well then, no.

    But don't confuse philosophical conviction with religious conviction. Philosophy and religion aren't the same thing!

    Everyone always misquotes and misunderstands that. Tertullian actually said certum est, quia impossibile, and in fact he did not mean a fideist rejection of evidence, but was offering a kind of evidence: the apparent implausibility of the doctrine in question is evidence of its truth, because it's not the sort of thing people would make up. So this is actually a rationalist argument for its truth, not a rejection of reason and evidence. Unfortunately poor old Tertullian has been tarred with the anti-intellectual brush and, it seems, will be for ever more.

    I didn't say it follows. I simply meant that if a brilliant person believes something, that is good reason to suppose that that belief is not, in itself, irrational or absurd. I don't see what's objectionable or paradoxical about that.
     
  2. Erik Mesoy

    Erik Mesoy Core Tester / Intern

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    I've linked to this page in a similar discussion before. It seems to be arguing something similar - "too ridiculous to have been believed if it weren't true" - although it never mentions Tertullian. May I have your opinion of it?
     
  3. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    From a brief glance, that looks to me like a fairly decent site with some sound knowledge behind it. It does a good job of explaining the absurdity of Christianity from an ancient viewpoint.

    But I think its case is too extreme really, and indeed it's not making exactly the same argument as Tertullian. Tertullian argued for the truth of the resurrection on the basis of the claim that no-one would have made it up. That doesn't seem to me a very good argument, if only because plenty of people believed in resurrection (e.g. the Pharisees), so it's perfectly plausible that someone could have made it up.

    That site, however, seems to be arguing for the truth of Christianity in general on the basis of the claim that no-one would have believed it if they hadn't been supernaturally inspired to do so. That is somewhat different and also seems to me to be implausible. Christianity certainly went against the grain in many ways, but that didn't make it literally utterly incredible to everyone. It's important to remember that most of the ideological opposition to Christian ideas that the site mentions came from intellectuals. Intellectuals wrote the books that are now our main source for people's attitudes in antiquity. They did not necessarily reflect everyone's views. And indeed, not many intellectuals believed in Christianity before the fourth century. The obvious conclusion to draw from that is that the sort of people who did believe in Christianity did not share the views of intellectuals. And indeed we find very disparaging comments about philosophers and the like in the works of Tatian, Tertullian, Lactantius, and other Christian apologists.

    The fact is that people do join religions, political groups, or other social organisations with messages at odds to common cultural or intellectual paradigms. Indeed the very fact that a group has a counter-cultural message is itself a strong attracting factor for many people. Just look at how many people instinctively assume that what "the mainstream" or "the official" view tells you is wrong; these are the people who think that Dan Brown is onto something and that Neil Armstrong is a fraud. In fact I'd say that that sort of attitude was one of the most important elements to gnosticism. So I should think it's perfectly plausible that, while for many people Christianity's apparent ill-fit to Roman norms was a turn-off, there were quite a few for whom it was a major plus point.

    There are also some aspects of Christianity that the site mentions that I don't think are quite right. For example, it mentions that everyone in antiquity respected what was old and mistrusted what was new. That's quite correct. But Christians agreed with this, and tried to present their religion as incredibly old, going back to Moses, now re-interpreted as the teacher of Plato. Some gnostic texts even credit their beliefs to the uncle of Zoroaster.

    Also, the idea that rigorous moral standards put everyone off isn't true. There are plenty of people who are attracted to a religion or a society because of rigorous moral standards. Perhaps not as many who are put off, but still. Tertullian, again, is an example: he joined the Montanists, apparently because he approved of their stricter moral strictures.

    I'd add that it really annoys me when apparently otherwise intelligent people insist on quoting the Bible in the AV in a non-liturgical context; I cannot understand why anyone would do this. But that's another matter.
     
  4. Loppan Torkel

    Loppan Torkel Chieftain

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    I'll look at the links, they seem thorough enough..
    Well, if you look at it scientifically, you won't include a God and the chance of this happening is close to zero, but if you are a Christian who believes that all people will get a chance to choose God or not, you've got a 100% chance of that happening. So what's the chance of this Christian God existing? That is impossible to tell.
    Ok. Thanks for answering.
    I don't think I am confusing them, even if they are overlapping in some ways.
    I agree, but then again, it wasn't my post you quoted... :)

    Thanks for your time.
     
  5. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    I'm not sure how one would paraphrase Pilate - someone who is often misquoted, since no quotes of his survive (he was no writer and no scribe recorded all of his sayings). That site, BTW, starts with something wrong:

    As Martin Hengel has amply shown us in his monograph, Crucifixion, the shame of the cross was the result of a fundamental norm of the Greco-Roman Empire. Hengel observes that "crucifixion was an utterly offensive affair, 'obscene' in the original sense of the word." (22) As Malina and Rohrbaugh note in their Social-Science Commentary on John [263-4], crucifixion was a "status degradation ritual" designed to humiliate in every way, including the symbolic pinioning of hands and legs signigfying a loss of power, and loss of ability to control the body in various ways, including befouling one's self with excrement.
    The process was so offensive that the Gospels turn out to be our most detailed description of a crucifixion from ancient times - the pagan authors were too revolted by the subject to give equally comprehensive descriptions - in spite of the fact that thousands of crucifixions were done at a time on some occasions. "(T)he cultured literary world wanted to have nothing to do with [crucifixion], and as a rule kept silent about it." (38)

    Crucifixion was in fact a status confirming ritual, as it was intended for those without the rights of a Roman citizen. (For instance, Spartacus' rebels were crucified en masse. Rome considered the Jewish religion objectionable only if one refused to pay homage to the emperor - that is, during the republic no such objection existed. The reason, for instance, Jesus was crucified was not because of his faith, but because he caused trouble.)

    In fact, faith or, to be more precise, religion, was - and is - considered as a valid form of knowledge.

    I wouldn't know about that: I didn't mention Tertullian precisely because I looked up that paraphrase; but since you mention it I believe, because it is absurd seems to be mistranslated from credibile est, quia ineptum est in Tertullian's De Carne Christi V,4. So the credo is in there, but not the absurd - literally that is, because ineptum can be translated with absurd, as well as inappropriate. So not everyone always misquotes and misunderstands that, although I figured you'd go that way.

    So you were not explicit. It still doesn't show how if something is believed by a brilliant person it's anymore believable -especialy if his brilliance shines in another field or discipline. If the belief is irrational or absurd, that's certainly a paradox - although I didn't say there's anything objectionabl about it. But let's not mince words.
     
  6. Masada

    Masada Koi-san!

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    They're not mutually exclusive, it could be both a means of "confirming" someones status as a non-Roman citizen whilst simultaneously accentuating and differentiating that fact by degrading their persons.
     
  7. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I'd say that if you're looking at it scientifically then you will neither include nor exclude God, because science alone cannot determine the chances of God's existing. So to look at it purely scientifically you couldn't assess the probability of divine revelation. You would have to bring in non-scientific views in order to do that. Conversely, I'd say that even if you're a Christian and you believe that God gives everyone a chance to choose him or not, that still wouldn't yield a 100% chance of his giving such revelations to people, because he might have other means of giving them a chance. For example, after death.

    Sorry - that's an occupational hazard of replying to lots of people at once...

    Well, if it's not the exact words he said, it's a misquote, isn't it? And I assumed that since you were citing it in Latin you must be trying to quote him - sorry if that was wrong. In any case, the more important question is what he meant. The passage as a whole does not support the attribution to Tertullian of any kind of fideism - as I argued above, it's actually an anti-fideist passage, because he is giving a reason to believe the doctrine in question (namely, its supposedly un-makeup-able nature).

    If you think it's genuinely paradoxical for a brilliant person to believe something absurd, then surely you must think that the fact that a brilliant person believes a certain thing is evidence for that belief's not being absurd. Otherwise, why would it be a paradox? I don't really understand what you're trying to say.
     
  8. Agent327

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    A paradox is not a contradiction, is it? Anyway, it proves nothing one way or the other. As concerns quoting, I believe mentioning the source is appropriate. Since the credo cannot be attributed to Tertullian, it can't be a quote - so I didn't mention him. Credo quia absurdum has, as you mentioned, taken on a life on its own. So irrespective of Tertullian's intended meaning it's a dictum. (Hm, I'm sure there's a paradox in here too somewhere...) But once again, I appreciate your as always elucidating comment; this must be one of the most erudite threads on CFC.
     
  9. burleyman

    burleyman Chieftain

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    Plotinus, have you seen, and are you impressed by, Anthony Flew's recantation of his atheistic beliefs, notably the book he wrote with Roy Verghese? There seems to be some controversy about how much of that work Flew actually wrote, but it is clear that modern scientific thought has tilted towards deism. The integrated complexity of the physical universe overall and of life in particular seems very hard to explain without some sort of purposeful intelligence behind it, and modern Christian philosophers such as Swinburne are harder to refute than those of a generation ago when I studied philosophy.
     
  10. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I have of course heard of Flew's change of mind but I haven't read the book or know much more about it. I'm not sure that "recantation" is the right word here - it's not exactly a road-to-Damascus conversion - as far as I know Flew hasn't embraced any religion and holds that if God does exist he's not a particularly admirable entity.

    I can't agree with that. Surely if that were so then most scientists would be deists, but they're not.

    I would agree that modern teleological arguments from cosmology and the laws of physics, including "fine-tuning" arguments, are superior to the early modern teleological arguments from biology. Obviously the modern explanation of evolution by natural selection makes those arguments from biology worthless. However, I would disagree that these things are "very hard to explain without some sort of purposeful intelligence" behind them. Any argument of the kind you allude to ultimately works by drawing analogies. It takes the form:

    (1) Phenomenon A has certain features X and Y.
    (2) Phenomenon B has certain feature X.
    (3) Therefore, phenomenon B has certain feature Y as well.

    The argument works on the assumption that if two phenomena share certain features, an analogy can be drawn between them which is strong enough to support the claim that they share other features as well. This was argued most explicitly by Joseph Butler in his Analogies of religion. And we can see it underlying telelogical arguments of the kind offered by William Paley: a watch and a living organism share certain features (such as being well constructed for certain purposes). Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that they share certain other features (such as having been designed). But of course you can't make such an assumption. The argument formalised above is clearly invalid as it stands; to be made valid you need to show:

    (2') If two phenomena have one set of features in common, they have other sets of features in common as well.

    - or something like it. But that's not easy to do. This is why those teleological arguments don't work. The mere fact that a watch and an animal share some features doesn't mean they share others, such as a common (kind of) cause. That, incidentally, is one of the (many) reasons I get annoyed at the media coverage of Darwin's anniversary this year. They keep presenting him as if he single-handedly destroyed the old teleological arguments. Of course he didn't. That had already been done a century earlier by Hume.

    It seems to me that the modern, cosmological-style teleological arguments ultimately rest upon the same sort of assumption. They still assume that something like fittedness for life, or complexity, or indeed simplicity, or whatever, needs explaining in the same way as similar phenomena would at a less than universal scale. But I don't see any reason to suppose this. Indeed I don't see any reason to suppose that things such as laws of physics or the existence of the universe itself require explanation in the first place.
     
  11. Agent327

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  12. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Well... I can't say I see anything of much philosophical or theological interest on that page, just people making inane Douglas Adams references. But more importantly I don't really see much philosophical interest in the topic anyway - it strikes me as an anthropological or even a merely taxonomic question, or perhaps one about the meaning of a word.
     
  13. Agent327

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    I was under the impression that quite a few theologians and philosophers have occupied themselves with this topic. (For instance, the book of Genesis infers that man is master over animal...)
     
  14. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I think you mean "implies"... yes, of course there has been much theological speculation over that and what it means. I suppose what I really meant is that that's not the kind of theology I do or am interested in. If you think that what the book of Genesis has to say on this topic is important or relevant then you might be interested in this, but I can't say that I do.
     
  15. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Actually, to infer can be used as a synonym for to imply. But I gather you keep to Goethe's dictum Im Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister.;)
     
  16. flyingchicken

    flyingchicken 99 117 110 116 115

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    When did this happen?
     
  17. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    "Infer" is often used to mean "imply", but that is wrong, just like using "nubile" to mean "sexy", or using "i.e." to mean "e.g.", and all the other errors that seem to be increasingly common these days.

    Maybe the day will come when the word "infer" has been so constantly misused that it changes its meaning and really does mean "imply". But that day hasn't yet come, because not enough people use it that way. ("Nubile" is further along the road to meaning change, I think, because pretty much no-one uses it correctly - they either use it incorrectly or don't use it at all. "E.g." is less far down the road - it is only fairly recently that I've seen people start misusing that, and only on the internet.)
     
  18. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Wow, people do like to digress on these forums... Actually, I meant infer (not imply). Didn't know you were a language puritanist. (Darn, now I did have a question, but I forgot what it was...)
     
  19. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I think that writing clearly and conveying your meaning without unnecessary ambiguity and distractions is a positive trait, if that's what you mean. I'm not convinced that you really did mean to say that the book of Genesis infers anything though. People infer things. How can a book infer anything?
     
  20. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Are you inferring that a book writes itself?:confused:
     
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