Form and Reality II

This is a followup to this earlier post, but will use a number of other threads to get a fuller understanding of the matter. Rather than presenting this in the form of a single essay, I will present it as a number of distinct theses, many of which have already been argued or suggested in various forms elsewhere on the blog.

(1) Everything that exists or can exist has or could have some relationship with the mind: relationship is in fact intrinsic to the nature of existence.

This was argued here, with related remarks in several recent posts. In a sense the claim is not only true but obviously so. You are the one who says or can say “this exists,” and you could not say or understand it unless the thing had or could have some relationship with your mind.

Perhaps this seems a bit unfair to reality, as though the limits of reality were being set by the limits of the thinker. What if there were a limited being that could only think of some things, but other things could exist that it could not think about? It is easy to see that in this situation the limited being does not have the concept of “everything,” and so can neither affirm nor deny (1). It is not that it would affirm it but be mistaken. It would simply never think of it.

Someone could insist: I myself am limited. It might be that there are better thinkers in the world that can think about things I could never conceive of. But again, if you have concept of “everything,” then you just thought of those things: they are the things that those thinkers would think about. So you just thought about them too, and brought them into relationship with yourself.

Thus, anyone who actually has the idea of “everything,” and thinks about the matter clearly, will agree with (1).

(2) Nothing can be true which could not in principle (in some sense of “in principle”) in some way be said to be true.

Thesis (1) can be taken as saying that anything that can be, can also be understood, at least in some way; and thesis (2) can be taken as saying that anything that can be understood, can also be said, at least in some way.

Since language is conventional, this does not need much of an argument. If I think that something exists, and I don’t have a name for it, I can make up a name. If I think that one thing is another thing, but don’t have words for these things, I can make up words for them. Even if I am not quite sure what I am thinking, I can say, “I have a thought in my mind but don’t quite have the words for it,” and in some way I have already put it into words.

One particular objection to the thesis might be made from self-reference paradoxes. The player in the Liar Game cannot correctly say whether the third statement is true or false, even though it is in fact true or false. But note two things: first, he cannot do this while he is playing, but once the game is over, he can explicitly and correctly say whether it was true or false. Second, even while playing, he can say, “the third statement has a truth value,” and in this way he speaks of its truth in a generic way. This is in part why I added the hedges to (2), “at least in some way”, and “in principle.”

(3) Things do not have hidden essences. That is, they may have essences, but those essences can be explained in words.

This follows in a straightforward way from (1) and (2). The essence of a thing is just “what it is,” or perhaps, “what it most truly is.” The question “what is this thing?” is formed with words, and it is evident that anyone who answers the question, will answer the question by using words.

Now someone might object that the essence of a thing might be hidden because perhaps in some cases the question does not have an answer. But then it would not be true that it has an essence but is hidden: rather, it would be false that it has an essence. Similarly, if the question “where is this thing,” does not have any answer, it does not mean the thing is in a hidden place, but that the thing is not in a place at all.

Another objection might be that an essence might be hidden because the answer to the question exists, but cannot be known. A discussion of this would depend on what is meant by “can be known” and “cannot be known” in this context. That is, if the objector is merely saying that we do not know such things infallibly, including the answer to the question, “what is this?”, then I agree, but would add that (3) does not speak to this point one way or another. But if it is meant that “cannot be known” means that there is something there, the “thing in itself,” which in no way can be known or expressed in words, this would be the Kantian error. This is indeed contrary to (3), and implicitly to (1) or (2) or both, but it is also false.

People might also think that the essence cannot be known because they notice that the question “what is this?” can have many legitimate answers, and suppose that one of these, and only one, must be really and truly true, but think that we have no way to find out which one it is. While there are certainly cases where an apparent answer to the question is not a true answer, the main response here is that if both answers are true, both answers are true: there does not need to be a deeper but hidden level where one is true and the other false. There may however be a deeper level which speaks to other matters and possibly explains both answers. Thus I said in the post linked above that the discussion was not limited to “how many,” but would apply in some way to every question about the being of things.

(4) Reductionism, as it is commonly understood, is false.

I have argued this in various places, but more recently and in particular here and here. It is not just one-sided to say for example that the universe and everything in it is just a multitude of particles. It is false, because it takes one of several truths, and says that one is “really” true and that the other is “really” false.

(5) Anti-reductionism, as it is commonly understood, is false.

This follows from the same arguments. Anti-reductionism, as for example the sort advocated by Alexander Pruss, takes the opposite side of the above argument, saying that certain things are “really” one and in no way many. And this is also false.

(6) Form makes a thing to be what it is, and makes it to be one thing.

This is largely a question of definition. It is what is meant by form in this context.

Someone might object that perhaps there is nothing that makes a thing what it is, or there is nothing that makes it one thing. But if it is what it is of itself, or if it is one of itself, then by this definition it is its own form, and we do not necessarily have an issue with that.

Again, someone might say that the definition conflates two potentially distinct things. Perhaps one thing makes a thing what it is, and another thing makes it one thing. But this is not possible because of the convertibility of being and unity: to be a thing at all, is to be one thing.

(7) Form is what is in common between the mind and the thing it understands, and is the reason the mind understands at all.

This is very distinctly not a question of definition. This needs to be proved from (6), along with what we know about understanding.

It is not so strange to think that you would need to have something in common with a thing in order to understand it. Thus Aristotle presents the words of Empedocles:

For ’tis by Earth we see Earth, by Water Water,

By Ether Ether divine, by Fire destructive Fire,

By Love Love, and Hate by cruel Hate.

On the other hand, there is also obviously something wrong with this. I don’t need to be a tree in order to see or think about a tree, and it is not terribly obvious that there is even anything in common between us. In fact, one of Hilary Lawson’s arguments for his anti-realist position is that there frequently seems to be nothing in common between causes and effects, and that therefore there may be (or certainly will be) nothing in common between our minds and reality, and thus we cannot ultimately know anything. Thus he says in Chapter 2 of his book on closure:

For a system of closure to provide a means of intervention in openness and thus to function as a closure machine, it requires a means of converting the flux of openness into an array of particularities. This initial layer of closure will be identified as ‘preliminary closure’. As with closure generally, preliminary closure consists in the realisation of particularity as a consequence of holding that which is different as the same. This is achieved through the realisation of material in response to openness. The most minimal example of a system of closure consists of a single preliminary closure. Such a system requires two discrete states, or at least states that can be held as if they were discrete. It is not difficult to provide mechanical examples of such systems which allow for a single preliminary closure. A mousetrap for example, can be regarded as having two discrete states: it is either set, it is ready, or it has sprung, it has gone off. Many different causes may have led to it being in one state or another: it may have been sprung by a mouse, but it could also have been knocked by someone or something, or someone could have deliberately set it off. In the context of the mechanism all of these variations are of no consequence, it is either set or it has sprung. The diversity of the immediate environment is thereby reduced to single state and its absence: it is either set or it is not set. Any mechanical arrangement that enables a system to alternate between two or more discrete states is thereby capable of providing the basis for preliminary closure. For example, a bell or a gate could function as the basis for preliminary closure. The bell can either ring or not ring, the gate can be closed or not closed. The bell may ring as the result of the wind, or a person or animal shaking it, but the cause of the response is in the context of system of no consequence. The bell either rings or it doesn’t. Similarly, the gate may be in one state or another because it has been deliberately moved, or because something or someone has dislodged it accidentally, but these variations are not relevant in the context of the state of system, which in this case is the position of the gate. In either case the cause of the bell ringing or the gate closing is infinitely varied, but in the context of the system the variety of inputs is not accessible to the system and thus of no consequence.

A useful way to think about Lawson is that he is in some way a disciple of Heraclitus. Thus closure is “holding that which is different as the same,” but in reality nothing is ever the same because everything is in flux. In the context of this passage, the mousetrap is either set or sprung, and so it divides the world into two states, the “set” state and the “sprung” state. But the universes with the set mousetrap have nothing in common with one another besides the set mousetrap, and the universes with the sprung mousetrap have nothing in common with one another besides the sprung mousetrap.

We can see how this could lead to the conclusion that knowledge is impossible. Sight divides parts of the world up with various colors. Leaves are green, the sky is blue, the keyboard I am using is black. But if I look at two different green things, or two different blue things, they may have nothing in common besides the fact that they affected my sight in a similar way. The sky and a blue couch are blue for very different reasons. We discussed this particular point elsewhere, but the general concern would be that we have no reason to think there is anything in common between our mind and the world, and some reason to think there must be something in common in order for us to understand anything.

Fortunately, the solution can be found right in the examples which supposedly suggest that there is nothing in common between the mind and the world. Consider the mousetrap. Do the universes with the set mousetrap have something in common? Yes, they have the set mousetrap in common. But Lawson does not deny this. His concern is that they have nothing else in common. But they do have something else in common: they have the same relationship to the mousetrap, different from the relationship that the universes with the sprung mousetrap have to their mousetrap. What about the mousetrap itself? Do those universes have something in common with the mousetrap? If we consider the relationship between the mousetrap and the universe as a kind of single thing with two ends, then they do, although they share in it from different ends, just as a father and son have a relationship in common (in this particular sense.) The same things will be true in the case of sensible qualities. “Blue” may divide up surface reflectance properties in a somewhat arbitrary way, but it does divide them into things that have something in common, namely their relationship with the sense of sight.

Or consider the same thing with a picture. Does the picture have anything in common with the thing it represents? Since a picture is meant to actually look similar to the eye to the object pictured, it may have certain shapes in common, the straightness of certain lines, and so on. It may have some colors in common. This kind of literal commonness might have suggested to Empedocles that we should know “earth by earth,” but one difference is that a picture and the object look alike to the eye, but an idea is not something that the mind looks at, and which happens to look like a thing: rather the idea is what the mind uses in order to look at a thing at all.

Thus a better comparison would be between the the thing seen and the image in the eye or the activity of the visual cortex. It is easy enough to see by looking that the image in a person’s eye bears some resemblance to the thing seen, even the sort of resemblance that a picture has. In a vaguer way, something similar turns out to be true even in the visual cortex:

V1 has a very well-defined map of the spatial information in vision. For example, in humans, the upper bank of the calcarine sulcus responds strongly to the lower half of visual field (below the center), and the lower bank of the calcarine to the upper half of visual field. In concept, this retinotopic mapping is a transformation of the visual image from retina to V1. The correspondence between a given location in V1 and in the subjective visual field is very precise: even the blind spots are mapped into V1. In terms of evolution, this correspondence is very basic and found in most animals that possess a V1. In humans and animals with a fovea in the retina, a large portion of V1 is mapped to the small, central portion of visual field, a phenomenon known as cortical magnification. Perhaps for the purpose of accurate spatial encoding, neurons in V1 have the smallest receptive field size of any visual cortex microscopic regions.

However, as I said, this is in a much vaguer way. In particular, it is not so much an image which is in common, but certain spatial relationships. If we go back to the idea of the mousetrap, this is entirely unsurprising. Causes and effects will always have something in common, and always in this particular way, namely with a commonality of relationship, because causes and effects, as such, are defined by their relationship to each other.

How does all this bear on our thesis (7)? Consider the color blue, and the question, “what is it to be blue?” What is the essence of blue? We could answer this in at least two different ways:

  1. To be blue is to have certain reflectance properties.
  2. To be blue is to be the sort of thing that looks blue.

But in the way intended, these are one and the same thing. A thing looks blue if it has those properties, and it has those properties if it looks blue. Now someone might say that this is a direct refutation of our thesis, since the visual cortex presumably does not look blue or have those properties when you look at something blue. But this is like Lawson’s claim that the universe has nothing in common with the sprung mousetrap. It does have something in common, if you look at the relationship from the other end. The same thing happens when we consider the meaning of “certain reflectance properties,” and “the sort of thing that looks blue.” We are actually talking about the properties that make a thing look blue, so both definitions are relative to the sense of sight. And this means that sight has something relative in common with them, and the relation it has in common is the very one that defines the nature of blue. As this is what we mean by form (thesis 6), the form of blue must be present in the sense of sight in order to see something blue.

In fact, it followed directly from thesis (1) that the nature of blue would need to include something relative. And it followed from (2) and (3) that the very same nature would turn out to be present in our senses, thoughts, and words.

The same argument applies to the mind as to the senses. I will draw additional conclusions in a later post, and in particular, show the relevance of theses (4) and (5) to the rest.

Idealized Idealization

On another occasion, I discussed the Aristotelian idea that the act of the mind does not use an organ. In an essay entitled Immaterial Aspects of Thought, James Ross claims that he can establish the truth of this position definitively. He summarizes the argument:

Some thinking (judgment) is determinate in a way no physical process can be. Consequently, such thinking cannot be (wholly) a physical process. If all thinking, all judgment, is determinate in that way, no physical process can be (the whole of) any judgment at all. Furthermore, “functions” among physical states cannot be determinate enough to be such judgments, either. Hence some judgments can be neither wholly physical processes nor wholly functions among physical processes.

Certain thinking, in a single case, is of a definite abstract form (e.g. N x N = N²), and not indeterminate among incompossible forms (see I below). No physical process can be that definite in its form in a single case. Adding cases even to infinity, unless they are all the possible cases, will not exclude incompossible forms. But supplying all possible cases of any pure function is impossible. So, no physical process can exclude incompossible functions from being equally well (or badly) satisfied (see II below). Thus, no physical process can be a case of such thinking. The same holds for functions among physical states (see IV below).

In essence, the argument is that squaring a number and similar things are infinitely precise processes, and no physical process is infinitely precise. Therefore squaring a number and similar things are not physical processes.

The problem is unfortunately with the major premise here. Squaring a number, and similar things, in the way that we in fact do them, are not infinitely precise processes.

Ross argues that they must be:

Can judgments really be of such definite “pure” forms? They have to be; otherwise, they will fail to have the features we attribute to them and upon which the truth of certain judgments about validity, inconsistency, and truth depend; for instance, they have to exclude incompossible forms or they would lack the very features we take to be definitive of their sorts: e.g., conjunction, disjunction, syllogistic, modus ponens, etc. The single case of thinking has to be of an abstract “form” (a “pure” function) that is not indeterminate among incompossible ones. For instance, if I square a number–not just happen in the course of adding to write down a sum that is a square, but if I actually square the number–I think in the form “N x N = N².”

The same point again. I can reason in the form, modus ponens (“If p then q“; “p“; “therefore, q”). Reasoning by modus ponens requires that no incompossible forms also be “realized” (in the same sense) by what I have done. Reasoning in that form is thinking in a way that is truth-preserving for all cases that realize the form. What is done cannot, therefore, be indeterminate among structures, some of which are not truth preserving. That is why valid reasoning cannot be only an approximation of the form, but must be of the form. Otherwise, it will as much fail to be truth-preserving for all relevant cases as it succeeds; and thus the whole point of validity will be lost. Thus, we already know that the evasion, “We do not really conjoin, add, or do modus ponens but only simulate them,” cannot be correct. Still, I shall consider it fully below.

“It will as much fail to be truth-preserving for all relevant cases as it succeeds” is an exaggeration here. If you perform an operation which approximates modus ponens, then that operation will be approximately truth preserving. It will not be equally truth preserving and not truth preserving.

I have noted many times in the past, as for example here, here, here, and especially here, that following the rules of syllogism does not in practice infallibly guarantee that your conclusions are true, even if your premises are in some way true, because of the vagueness of human thought and language. In essence, Ross is making a contrary argument: we know, he is claiming, that our arguments infallibly succeed; therefore our thoughts cannot be vague. But it is empirically false that our arguments infallibly succeed, so the argument is mistaken right from its starting point.

There is also a strawmanning of the opposing position here insofar as Ross describes those who disagree with him as saying that “we do not really conjoin, add, or do modus ponens but only simulate them.” This assumes that unless you are doing these things perfectly, rather than approximating them, then you are not doing them at all. But this does not follow. Consider a triangle drawn on a blackboard. Consider which of the following statements is true:

  1. There is a triangle drawn on the blackboard.
  2. There is no triangle drawn on the blackboard.

Obviously, the first statement is true, and the second false. But in Ross’s way of thinking, we would have to say, “What is on the blackboard is only approximately triangular, not exactly triangular. Therefore there is no triangle on the blackboard.” This of course is wrong, and his description of the opposing position is wrong in the same way.

Naturally, if we take “triangle” as shorthand for “exact rather than approximate triangle” then (2) will be true. And in a similar way, if take “really conjoin” and so on as shorthand for “really conjoin exactly and not approximately,” then those who disagree will indeed say that we do not do those things. But this is not a problem unless you are assuming from the beginning that our thoughts are infinitely precise, and Ross is attempting to establish that this must be the case, rather than claiming to take it as given. (That is, the summary takes it as given, but Ross attempts throughout the article to establish it.)

One could attempt to defend Ross’s position as follows: we must have infinitely precise thoughts, because we can understand the words “infinitely precise thoughts.” Or in the case of modus ponens, we must have an infinitely precise understanding of it, because we can distinguish between “modus ponens, precisely,” and “approximations of modus ponens“. But the error here is similar to the error of saying that one must have infinite certainty about some things, because otherwise one will not have infinite certainty about the fact that one does not have infinite certainty, as though this were a contradiction. It is no contradiction for all of your thoughts to be fallible, including this one, and it is no contradiction for all of your thoughts to be vague, including your thoughts about precision and approximation.

The title of this post in fact refers to this error, which is probably the fundamental problem in Ross’s argument. Triangles in the real world are not perfectly triangular, but we have an idealized concept of a triangle. In precisely the same way, the process of idealization in the real world is not an infinitely precise process, but we have an idealized concept of idealization. Concluding that our acts of idealization must actually be ideal in themselves, simply because we have an idealized concept of idealization, would be a case of confusing the way of knowing with the way of being. It is a particularly confusing case simply because the way of knowing in this case is also materially the being which is known. But this material identity does not make the mode of knowing into the mode of being.

We should consider also Ross’s minor premise, that a physical process cannot be determinate in the way required:

Whatever the discriminable features of a physical process may be, there will always be a pair of incompatible predicates, each as empirically adequate as the other, to name a function the exhibited data or process “satisfies.” That condition holds for any finite actual “outputs,” no matter how many. That is a feature of physical process itself, of change. There is nothing about a physical process, or any repetitions of it, to block it from being a case of incompossible forms (“functions”), if it could be a case of any pure form at all. That is because the differentiating point, the point where the behavioral outputs diverge to manifest different functions, can lie beyond the actual, even if the actual should be infinite; e.g., it could lie in what the thing would have done, had things been otherwise in certain ways. For instance, if the function is x(*)y = (x + y, if y < 10^40 years, = x + y +1, otherwise), the differentiating output would lie beyond the conjectured life of the universe.

Just as rectangular doors can approximate Euclidean rectangularity, so physical change can simulate pure functions but cannot realize them. For instance, there are no physical features by which an adding machine, whether it is an old mechanical “gear” machine or a hand calculator or a full computer, can exclude its satisfying a function incompatible with addition, say quaddition (cf. Kripke’s definition of the function to show the indeterminacy of the single case: quus, symbolized by the plus sign in a circle, “is defined by: x quus y = x + y, if x, y < 57, =5 otherwise”) modified so that the differentiating outputs (not what constitutes the difference, but what manifests it) lie beyond the lifetime of the machine. The consequence is that a physical process is really indeterminate among incompatible abstract functions.

Extending the list of outputs will not select among incompatible functions whose differentiating “point” lies beyond the lifetime (or performance time) of the machine. That, of course, is not the basis for the indeterminacy; it is just a grue-like illustration. Adding is not a sequence of outputs; it is summing; whereas if the process were quadding, all its outputs would be quadditions, whether or not they differed in quantity from additions (before a differentiating point shows up to make the outputs diverge from sums).

For any outputs to be sums, the machine has to add. But the indeterminacy among incompossible functions is to be found in each single case, and therefore in every case. Thus, the machine never adds.

There is some truth here, and some error here. If we think about a physical process in the particular way that Ross is considering it, it will be true that it will always be able to be interpreted in more than one way. This is why, for example, in my recent discussion with John Nerst, John needed to say that the fundamental cause of things had to be “rules” rather than e.g. fundamental particles. The movement of particles, in itself, could be interpreted in various ways. “Rules,” on the other hand, are presumed to be something which already has a particular interpretation, e.g. adding as opposed to quadding.

On the other hand, there is also an error here. The prima facie sign of this error is the statement that an adding machine “never adds.” Just as according to common sense we can draw triangles on blackboards, so according to common sense the calculator on my desk can certainly add. This is connected with the problem with the entire argument. Since “the calculator can add” is true in some way, there is no particular reason that “we can add” cannot be true in precisely the same way. Ross wishes to argue that we can add in a way that the calculator cannot because, in essence, we do it infallibly; but this is flatly false. We do not do it infallibly.

Considered metaphysically, the problem here is ignorance of the formal cause. If physical processes were entirely formless, they indeed would have no interpretation, just as a formless human (were that possible) would be a philosophical zombie. But in reality there are forms in both cases. In this sense, Ross’s argument comes close to saying “human thought is a form or formed, but physical processes are formless.” Since in fact neither is formless, there is no reason (at least established by this argument) why thought could not be the form of a physical process.


Over the Precipice

Two years ago, Ross Douthat wrote this:

TO grasp why events this month in Rome — publicly feuding cardinals, documents floated and then disavowed — were so remarkable in the context of modern Catholic history, it helps to understand certain practical aspects of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

On paper, that doctrine seems to grant extraordinary power to the pope — since he cannot err, the First Vatican Council declared in 1870, when he “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

In practice, though, it places profound effective limits on his power.

Those limits are set, in part, by normal human modesty: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that,” John XXIII is reported to have said. But they’re also set by the binding power of existing teaching, which a pope cannot reverse or contradict without proving his own office, well, fallible — effectively dynamiting the very claim to authority on which his decisions rest.

Not surprisingly, then, popes are usually quite careful. On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial. In the last era of major church reform, the Second Vatican Council, the popes were not the intellectual protagonists, and the council’s debates — while vigorous — were steered toward a (pope-approved) consensus: The documents that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with less than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast.

But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.

As I will show later in this post, there is a closer relationship than Douthat seems to realize between what “is happening under Pope Francis” and the mentioned documents on religious liberty and Judaism, but he is also right, in another way, that it remains “something very different.”

Later in the article, Douthat continues:

And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.

SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

Much of Douthat’s prediction has already been fulfilled. It is easy enough to find example of the “doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia.” A little over a week ago, Louie Verrecchio wrote,

The time is now at hand for “cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error.” Francis has been given the opportunity, by way of a public challenge issued by senior cardinals, to confirm the true Faith in the face of the heresies that he himself disseminated throughout the Universal Church in Amoris Laetitia, and he has refused.

His unwillingness to formally address the dubia directly and plainly changes nothing of the objective reality that is staring us squarely in the face.

Even if others in Catholic media are afraid to say it aloud, at least thus far, I am not:

Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.

Verrechio was not, up to this time, a sedevacantist. The sedevacantist blog Novus Ordo Watch therefore responds,

Deo gratias! Another Semi-Traditionalist has finally had enough and publicly confessed the truth that is plain for all to see who are courageous enough to look: Francis is not the Pope of the Catholic Church. Mr. Louie Verrecchio, formerly a star pundit of the conservative wing of the Novus Ordo Sect who came to embrace a recognize-but-resist type of traditionalism, has just made the following declaration on his blog, AKA Catholic: “Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.”

Douthat noted that the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is still alive would contribute to “apocalypticism and paranoia.” This is evident in the claim made by a number of people that Pope Benedict’s resignation was invalid, and thus Pope Benedict remains Pope, and Pope Francis is therefore illegitimate. Ann Barnhardt, for example, adopted this position last June.

We have not seen any “real schism” yet, but there are people waiting and hoping for it, as for example Hilary White, who says in a post on The Remnant’s site:

If all factors remain steady – that is, if Francis Bergoglio does not repent and the cardinals do not get cold feet – what will happen, what has to happen, is this:

– Bergoglio will continue not to respond, allowing his proxies to speak for him as always. He will continue to attack as “enemies” and “detractors” anyone who tries to recall him to his duty.

– The cardinals, after an interval in which they may issue another warning, must do their duty and denounce his heresies for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. This must happen if for no other reason than that the faithful are being led by this pope over the cliff of mortal sin.

– After the formal denunciation, therefore, the episcopate, clergy and laity will divide into two groups. The Catholic side will be very small, and will seem weak and powerless and foolish in the eyes of the world. They will have only the truth of the Faith as their weapon and shield.

– The second will have all the material institution of the Church, all its monetary resources, the psychological asset of its material patrimony of churches, schools, universities, hospitals etc. and the political power of recognition and support by the secular world, as well as the adherence of nearly all those who continue to call themselves Catholics.

– Bergoglio will demand the acquiescence of the Catholics with his usual threats and insults. He will empower his followers at the national level to punish priests, seminarians, teachers, university professors, et al, if they do not embrace the New Paradigm.

– The standoff can only possibly be broken by what canonists call a “declaratory sentence” that Bergoglio is a formal and obdurate or pertinacious heretic and has by his own actions lost the office of the papacy.

– Their duty then will be plain. The Catholic Church cannot function without a pope, and they will be obliged to call a conclave.

What will things look like after the schism is complete? We can easily extrapolate that from what things look like now. The vast majority of the Catholic world, lay and clerical, have no problem at all with Francis or with the entire New Paradigm of Vaticantwoism. The Church will consist, as it always has, of believers, but there will be no buildings. The reality, visible to the eyes of God, will be that the larger body will be what we might call the Bergoglian sect. They will have all the appearances of legitimacy and will be respected and at last embraced by the world, who will think that the tiny group of objectors are fools and “dissenters.”

What is all the fuss about? The theological issues at play are not ultimately all that complicated, and do not signify any substantial change in the Church’s teaching. Ross Douthat, however, suggested in the article discussed above that more was at stake. And now, writing just yesterday, he says,

“This is not normal” — so say Donald Trump’s critics as he prepares to assume the presidency. But the American republic is only the second-oldest institution facing a distinctively unusual situation at the moment. Pride of place goes to the Roman Catholic Church, which with less fanfare (perhaps because the papacy lacks a nuclear arsenal) has also entered terra incognita.

Two weeks ago, four cardinals published a so-called dubia — a set of questions, posed to Pope Francis, requesting that he clarify his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia.” In particular they asked him to clarify whether the church’s ban on communion for divorced Catholics in new (and, in the church’s eyes, adulterous) marriages remained in place, and whether the church’s traditional opposition to situation ethics had been “developed” into obsolescence.

The dubia began as a private letter, as is usual with such requests for doctrinal clarity. Francis offered no reply. It became public just before last week’s consistory in Rome, when the pope meets with the College of Cardinals and presents the newly-elevated members with red hats. The pope continued to ignore it, but took the unusual step of canceling a general meeting with the cardinals (not a few of whose members are quiet supporters of the questioners).

Francis canceled because the dubia had him “boiling with rage,” it was alleged. This was not true, tweeted his close collaborator, the Jesuit father Antonio Spadaro, though he had previously tweeted and then deleted a shot of the wizard Gandalf, from “Lord of the Rings,” growling his refusal to “bandy crooked words with a witless worm.”

Meanwhile one those four alleged “worms,” the combative traditionalist, Cardinal Raymond Burke, gave an interview suggesting that papal silence might require a “formal act of correction” from the cardinals — something without obvious precedent in Catholic history. (Popes have been condemned for flirting with heresy, but only after their deaths.) That was strong language; even stronger was the response from the head of Greece’s Catholic bishops, who accused the dubia authors of “heresy” and possibly “apostasy” for questioning the pope.

I would suggest that people are seeing something true, namely that the current situation is very unusual and has unusual implications, but they are mistaken in supposing that Pope Francis is calling into question the indissolubility of marriage or the existence of intrinsically evil actions, at least as particular claims. We can see this by considering the matter of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia from a different point of view. Our responses to the dubia were framed as though it were a question of complex moral situations. And of course human life is complicated and there are in fact complex situations. But what is the real concern here? The four Cardinals explain:

It would seem that admitting to Communion those of the faithful who are separated or divorced from their rightful spouse and who have entered a new union in which they live with someone else as if they were husband and wife would mean for the Church to teach by her practice one of the following affirmations about marriage, human sexuality and the nature of the sacraments:

  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. However, people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy.
  • A divorce dissolves the marriage bond. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts. The divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts.
  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts, so that the divorced and civilly remarried live in a situation of habitual, public, objective and grave sin. However, admitting persons to the Eucharist does not mean for the Church to approve their public state of life; the faithful can approach the Eucharistic table even with consciousness of grave sin, and receiving absolution in the sacrament of penance does not always require the purpose of amending one’s life. The sacraments, therefore, are detached from life: Christian rites and worship are on a completely different sphere than the Christian moral life.  

But this does not exhaust the available options. We can see this by comparing another matter where the Church, not so long ago, began to admit to the Eucharist people who were formerly prohibited from receiving. Fr. Joseph Bolin compares the admission of Orthodox Christians to the Eucharist in the Catholic Church with the admission of divorced and remarried people:

Canon 844 § 3 requires that:

  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches ask on their own for the sacraments
  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches are properly disposed.

Since these Christians are in a public state of material schism or material heresy, why doesn’t canon 915 exclude them from Eucharistic Communion?

I’m not aware of any even semi-authoritative account, but suggest that the presumption is made that they are not culpable for their schism or heresy, and that this is a common and public presumption. Consequently:

  • they are not able at the time to cease from the public schism, as that would be contrary to their convictions in conscience
  • They are well-disposed, having confessed any grave sins they are aware of and intending to avoid them in the future, etc.
  • It is common knowledge that Orthodox are sincerely convinced of their position rather than moved by bad-will, so their receiving communion on their own request causes no great scandal with respect to the obligation to seek and adhere to the true Church.
  • There is no general invitation made to non-Catholics to receive, so it remains clear that it is not a normal, but an exception for them to receive

Would canon 915 require excluding from Eucharistic Communion a divorced and remarried Orthodox Christian who is permitted Communion in his own Church? Or would not the common and public presumption of good-will apply to them in this matter just as much as it does in regard to their schism, so that the objective disorder, the objective sin of adultery would not be an instance of “manifest grave sin” in the sense intended by canon 915?

Are there also particular circumstances in which there can be and is a de facto, common, and reasonable presumption of good-will on the part of divorced and remarried Catholics? If so, the objective disorder and sin as such would be per se no greater grounds for exclusion from Eucharistic Communion than the objective disorder and sin of the separated Orthodox Christians is.

Then, in a follow-up post, he says,

In the case of the Orthodox, it is clear enough to most people that there are reasons why an Orthodox Christian is not in a position to accept, e.g., the Church’s teaching on the authority of the pope — because he grew up learning to see the Church’s teaching as wrong, a human deviation, etc. — and that the Church’s acceptance that these persons can in good faith reject the pope’s authority does not imply any lessening of the doctrine itself. It does imply, however, this doctrine is not manifestly true to each and every person of good will.

If there are similar externally perceptible reasons why individual persons are not in a position to accept the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility and unity of marriage and/or the restriction of genital intercourse to marriage, and the Church accepts these, this similarly does not imply a lessening of the doctrine of indissolubility and unity of marriage itself. It does, however, imply, just as in the case of the Orthodox and the authority of the pope, that the Church’s doctrine on marriage is not manifestly true to all of good will, not even to all Catholics of good will.

There is, of course, a difference between the Orthodox who does not accept the Church’s teaching, and a Catholic who does not accept it, namely that the Catholic claims to be Catholic. This could be a reason to maintain a different practice in the two cases, not because of there being a difference in regard to whether one or the other is manifesting persevering in sin or not, but because one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.

Fr. Joseph has reached the heart of the matter here, both in explaining why such an admission to the Eucharist is consistent with Catholic doctrine, and in suggesting why it nonetheless involves a significant “precipice”, as Douthat put it.

In Amoris Laetitia itself, Pope Francis spoke of people who “may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent values.” This is just a way of speaking of people who know that the Church forbids divorce and remarriage, but who disagree with the prohibition. This roundabout reference to doctrinal disagreement is perhaps a way of shying away from the precipice, as is also the Pope’s statement,

Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.

This could be taken to imply that at least people who disagree with the Church about remarriage should not be admitted to the Eucharist, but this interpretation is unlikely. It is unlikely because of the above statement about people who do not understand the “inherent values” of the law, and it is also unlikely because there is no doubt about what the vast majority of divorced and remarried people believe. Questions about moral objects and about adultery and moral complexity and so on are merely academic here, because the persons involved do not believe they are having intercourse with a person with whom they are not married. They believe that they are having marital intercourse with their spouse. They believe they are married. This may be because they believe the Church is wrong about the facts, and that their first marriage was invalid. (Note that in fact according to canon law this would not be enough to make the second marriage valid, as long as invalidity of the first marriage was not a matter of public record, so they would have to believe that the Church is wrong about this as well.) Or they may believe that the Church is wrong about the possibility of divorce and a second union. Either way, they believe they are married.

What then is the Pope saying about people who flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal? It seems to be something like this: if someone publicly proclaims that the Church is wrong about divorce and remarriage, and says that its teaching needs to be corrected, and so on, then this is something that “separates from the community.” But if he merely believes this personally, without demanding that the Church change its teaching, this is a different situation. And in this situation the Pope is willing for the person to be treated like the Orthodox Christians, and to be admitted to the Eucharist.

Fr. Joseph points out the essential difference from the case of the Orthodox: “one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.” What difference does this make? This is related to what Fr. Joseph calls “the presumption of good will.” Good will implies at least that a person is following his conscience and trying to do what is right. The presumption of good will in the case of the Orthodox means that we would accept that they are probably trying to do what is right to the best of their ability. Now there are people who would not accept this presumption, even in the case of the Orthodox. Pope Leo XIII, for example, as we noted elsewhere, said that Catholicism is easily seen to be true, with the consequent suggestion that those who do not recognize that it is true are guilty.

A presumption of good will in the case of a dissenting Catholic is a different matter. On the one hand, it is an objectively reasonable presumption, just as in the case of the Orthodox. The majority of those who call themselves Catholics disagree with various teachings of the Church, and the reason they call themselves Catholics is not in order to adopt a set of intellectual positions, but in order to be members of a certain community. Thus “nearly everyone calling themselves Catholic is wicked for disagreeing with the Church” is nearly as outrageous as “the Orthodox are wicked for being outside the Church.”

On the other hand, the “precipice” results from the public acknowledgement of this situation, even though the situation is real whether it is acknowledged or not. If the Church openly says, “you can disagree with the Church even about important doctrines like the indissolubility of marriage without being in sin,” then many people, perhaps most people, will take this as permission to disagree with the Church about its definitive teachings. It would not be in fact such a permission, since the Church would still be maintaining that there is an objective obligation to accept its claims, but people would take it as such a permission in practice.

Pope Francis may also have chosen a singularly bad case in which to make this point. Human beings are not very reasonable in relation to sexuality, and it likely would not be rare to find someone who at first fully accepted the teaching of the Church on all matters, but later divorces and remarries, and from that point disagrees with the Church. Douthat himself raised the example of Henry VIII. Such a case looks suspiciously like a case of bad will.

Nonetheless, as a whole this situation is not simply a chance result of Pope Francis’s personal behavior, but a logical working out of the truth about the Church’s place in the world. I commented at the beginning of this post on the Second Vatican Council on “religious liberty and Judaism.” Douthat says that these are areas “seemed most like developments of doctrine.” But these developments too are harshly criticized by some. Thus for example the Society of St. Pius X, on a page devoted to rejecting religious liberty, says:

The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices. The Church—without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized—has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults. To accept the teaching of Vatican II is to grant that, for two millennia, the popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, bishops, and Catholic kings have constantly violated the natural rights of men without anyone in the Church noticing. Such a thesis is as absurd as it is impious.

Regardless of what someone says on a theologically technical level in terms of the development of doctrine, there is surely some truth in their account of people’s past behavior, and of its contrast with more recent opinions. I noted the same thing in my own post on religious liberty.

The problem with the behavior described, of course, is that it presumes bad will on the part of the people who disagree with your religion, and this presumption is unreasonable. This is necessarily so, given the thesis of the “hidden God,” a thesis which is maintained by all religions, and which is necessary in order to suppose them to be true.

A tension however arises because the thesis of hiddenness is in obvious conflict with the thesis that a religion is easily seen to be true, openly stated by Leo XIII. The latter thesis is at least implicit in the whole former history of religious liberty. And it is most definitely implicit in modern traditionalism on the matter, as for example P. Edmund Waldstein’s explanation of integralism:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

The problem here is that in order for the temporal power to accept this subordination, they must know about the higher end. If the truth is hidden, they will not know, and they will not accept the subordination, nor should they. And this is why integralism is false in practice, whatever one says about it in theory. (Brief summaries allow for brief refutations!)

It is not by chance that P. Edmund basically holds that the truth of Catholicism is supremely obvious. His integralism cannot be true, unless his “Catholicism is obvious” thesis is also true. Both are false.

One way or another, the thesis of hiddenness and the thesis of obviousness are in direct conflict and cannot both be accepted. P. Edmund rejects the hiddenness. Pope Francis, and most of the Catholic Church, rejects the obviousness. And ultimately Amoris Laetitia is simply drawing out consequences of this. If the truth of Catholicism is not obvious, it is not obvious even to Catholics, nor are particular doctrines, like the Church’s doctrine on marriage, obviously true.

One interesting result of all this is the situation of the Society of St. Pius X. There was speculation that Pope Francis would regularize the Society at the end of the Year of Mercy. This did not happen, although the Pope indefinitely extended the permission of the Society to hear confessions:

For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins.[15] For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.

What is currently lacking for “full communion”? I do not believe that the answer lies in the acceptance of any doctrine or opinion. The problem (possibly more an impediment on the part of the CDF than on the part of Pope Francis) is that the Society maintains that the Church is wrong about religious liberty and other matters, and that the Church’s teaching should be corrected, and they maintain this publicly, as a community, as in the page linked on religious liberty. As Pope Francis said, such a position “separates from the community.” The irony is that apart from “flaunting” their views, the position they reject is the very reason Pope Francis would accept them, without having to change their view of religious liberty or anything else.

One might ask whether or not the Church can survive a fall from Douthat’s precipice. I think that it can, but we will all learn the truth of the matter from experience, because the top of the precipice is behind, not ahead.

Sola Me and Claiming Personal Infallibility

At his blog, P. Edmund Waldstein and myself have a discussion about this post about myself and his account of the certainty of faith, an account that I consider to be a variety of the doctrine of sola me.

In that discussion we consider various details of his position, as well as the teaching of the Church and of St. Thomas. Here, let me step out for a moment and consider the matter more generally.

It is evident that everything that he says could be reformulated and believed by the members of any religion whatsoever, in order to justify the claim that they should never change their religion, no matter how much evidence is brought against it. Thus, instead of,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal.

a Muslim might say,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of Allah. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Mohammed, as a witness who is both external and internal.

P. Edmund could argue against particular claims of the Muslim, and the Muslim could argue against P. Edmund’s particular claims. But neither would be listening seriously to the other, because each would assert, “It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the [Catholic / Islamic] Faith.”

Regardless of details, each is claiming to be personally infallible in discerning the truth about religion.

It is possible to lock yourself into a box intellectually that you cannot escape from in any reasonable way. Descartes does this for example with his hypothesis of the Evil Demon. Logically, according to this hypothesis, he should suppose that he might be wrong about the fact that it is necessary to exist in order to think or to doubt things. Without accepting any premises, it is of course impossible to arrive at any conclusions. In a similar way, if someone believes himself infallible on some topic, logically there is no way for him to correct his errors in regard to that topic.

In practice in such cases it is possible to escape from the box, since belief is voluntary. The Cartesian may simply choose to stop doubting, and the believer may simply choose to accept the fact that he is not personally infallible. But there is no logical process of reasoning that could validly lead to these choices.

People construct theological bomb shelters for themselves in various ways. Fr. Brian Harrison does this by asserting a form of young earth creationism, and simply ignoring all the evidence opposed to this. Likewise, asserting that you are personally infallible in discerning the true religion is another way to construct such a shelter. But hear the words of St. Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

As Darwin Catholic points out, someone who argues that “either evolution is false or Christianity is false” does not make Christianity more credible, but less. In a similar way, someone who argues that their religion requires that they believe themselves personally infallible, is essentially saying, “Either my religion is false or I am personally infallible.” This does not make their religion more credible, but less, to whatever degree that one thinks they are right about the requirement.

(After some consideration, I will be posting at least on Sundays during February and March.)

A Letter of Newman to Fr. Coleridge

In 1870 the First Vatican Council defined the infallibility of the Pope under certain circumstances. In a letter dated February 5, 1871, Newman says:

My dear Fr. Coleridge,

I began to read Fr. Harper’s papers, but they were (to my ignorance of theology and philosophy) so obscure, and (to my own knowledge of my real meaning) so hopelessly misrepresentations of the book, that I soon gave it over. As to my answering, I think I never answered any critique on any writing of mine, in my life. My Essay on Development was assailed by Dr. Brownson on one side, and Mr. Archer Butler on the other, at great length. Brownson, I believe, thought me a Pantheist–and sent me his work to Rome, by some American Bishop. Mr. Butler has been lauded by his people as having smashed me. Now at the end of twenty years, I am told from Rome that I am guilty of the late Definition by my work on Development, so orthodox has it been found in principle, and on the other side Bampton Lectures have been preached, I believe, allowing that principle, the Guardian acknowledges the principle as necessary, and the Scotch Editors of Dorner’s great work on our Lord’s Person, cautioning of course the world against me, admit that development of doctrine is a historical fact. I shall not live another 20 years, but, as I waited patiently as regards my former work for ‘Time to be the Father of Truth’, so now I leave the judgment between Fr. Harper and me to the sure future.

In the case of the definition of 1854, even if Catholics had once doubted the doctrine, by the time of the definition it was certainly the general belief throughout the Catholic world, and even at the time of St. Thomas it was a common belief among Catholics. But in the case of papal infallibility, there was significantly more disagreement, at least about the details of the idea, even in the nineteenth century. Thus, when Newman says, “I am told from Rome that I am guilty of the late Definition,” the implication is that someone told him that without his theory of the development of doctrine, the council would not have agreed to make the definition.

Fr. Brian Harrison’s Bomb Shelter

Fr. Brian Harrison complains about “Bomb-Shelter Theology”:

Those who anxiously whittle down and attenuate the traditional Catholic faith to the point where it includes no affirmations whatever about physical, material realities (such as conception, virginity, crucified corpses, the earth, sun, stars, etc.), on the grounds that such matters fall within the competence of “science,” do a very good job of what they set out to do: their theological bomb-shelter is indeed impregnable against any possible bomb which might be launched by physicists, geologists, historians, etc. No such missile could ever damage that kind of “faith,” any more than a cloud can be damaged by firing a shot-gun at it: there is nothing solid there with which the shot might possibly collide. Nevertheless, if the Catholic Church ever came to adopt, or even officially permit, this scientifically-ever-so-respectable theology, her rational credibility would suffer death by the “asphyxiation” of self-contradiction. Let us see why this is the case.

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

For the credibility of an investigator and that of a witness have to be judged according to very different criteria. An investigator only need avoid self-contradiction in what he says at any given time. Provided he does that, he may – and indeed, should – contradict what he said only yesterday, if he happens to have found new evidence overnight that his previous view was mistaken. But a witness in a court of law is subject to more exacting requirements. Unlike the investigator, he is asking us to believe certain things on the strength of his word, not on the basis of publicly available data which the rest of us can inspect and evaluate for ourselves. He is asking us to trust him as a reliable source of information which is otherwise inaccessible to the rest of us. This means that in order for him to be credible in the claims he makes, he must avoid not only contradicting himself while under cross-examination today; he must also avoid contradicting today what he said yesterday -or the day before. Once he gives his clear, emphatic, sworn testimony to something, he must forever stick by it, and be able to defend it, on pain of destroying his whole credibility. Now, things like creeds and dogmas and solemn papal or conciliar definitions are the emphatic “sworn testimony” of the Catholic Church in bearing witness to the truth of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ and in the natural moral law. So are those doctrines which, even though not defined in such specific documents, have been taught by a solid consensus of Popes and Catholic Bishops round the world as being “definitively to be held.”

This analogy should help us to see the folly of those modern theologians and exegetes who think it admissible to indulge in “bomb-shelter” theology to the extent of discarding or “re-interpreting” those definitively taught doctrines from our Catholic heritage which they feel are – or even might be in future – vulnerable to scientific bombardment. Because they are imitating the investigative mentality of the merely human disciplines (“let’s be humbly willing to correct our mistakes”), they can enjoy a superficial aura of intellectual sophistication and respectability, especially if (as usually happens) these scholars work in a university environment. What they fail to realize is that, precisely from the standpoint of intellectual credibility, this “pick-and-choose Catholicism,” which clings to scientifically “untouchable” doctrines while surrendering the scientifically “vulnerable” ones, is simply laughable. If the Church were an unreliable witness on any one definitive doctrine – a “sworn statement” – then there would be no justification for continuing to believe any of the rest. If it were true that science could demonstrate the falsity of one or more such doctrines, the intelligent response would not be to “correct,” “reinterpret,” or otherwise patch up those particular doctrines, while continuing to preach and teach the rest as though nothing had happened. The intelligent response would be that which has in fact been chosen by such ex-theologians as Charles Davis and Anthony Kenny (but not, for instance, by Hans Küng): complete abandonment of the Catholic Church. Outright apostasy can at times have a certain amount of intellectual integrity and coherence about it; mere heresy is always intellectually bankrupt.

Fr. Harrison seems to be saying something like this: Catholics only believe in Catholic doctrine because they believe that the Church is trustworthy. If the Church ever “committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way” to something, and that thing turned out to be false, then the Church would not be trustworthy. Therefore there would be no reason for anyone to believe any of its doctrines.

Fr. Harrison continues:

There are many theologians today who speak as though revelation deals only with transcendent mysteries that are quite beyond the reach of human science or reason. But in fact the Church’s two-thousand-year witness includes “sworn testimony” not only to `intangible´ mysteries such as the Trinity, the Real Presence, Grace, the Redemptive value of Christ’s death, life after death, and so on, but also to “solid” truths in a more or less literal sense: those involving physical matter existing on this earth in time and space. The Church has insistently proclaimed as revealed truth, for instance, that Jesus was conceived in His Mother’s womb while she was yet a virgin, and that His mortal remains were raised to life in His resurrection. As both Vatican Councils affirm, revelation includes not only the completely transcendent truths, but also others “which in themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason” but which for many people would in fact be difficult to ascertain by their own unaided reason. Thanks to their inclusion in revelation, however, such truths “can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error.”

In his work, The Science of Historical Theology,  Msgr. John F. McCarthy has emphasized the importance of these revealed truths which are also accessible to reason – or at least, to some people’s reason -and in particular those such as we have already mentioned, which belong to the field of history. As he says, they can be described as “revealed history,” or “past revealed reality.” The virginal conception of Our Lord, for instance, is a historical fact which is accessible to most of us only through revelation. (Indeed, it was accessible to the natural reason of only one person, Our Lady herself. Mary knew, without any help from revelation, that she had never had intercourse with any man and yet was pregnant. St. Joseph and all the rest of us needed a revelation from on high to guarantee such an extraordinary fact.)

Today’s fashionable bomb-shelter theology, however, in what might be called an overreaction to the Galileo case, refuses to accept the idea of “revealed history.” One such theologian of my acquaintance scoffed at such a concept as an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. According to him, if a truth is revealed, then by definition it cannot be historical, and vice versa. And he appealed to Vatican II’s teaching on the “rightful autonomy of science” (which here means “science” in a broad sense to cover history as well as the physical sciences) in order to justify his position. He pointed out that in this passage the Council rebukes those Christians who neglect this autonomy. Such believers, it says, “have occasioned conflict and controversy and have misled many into opposing faith and science.”

This theologian’s thinking went more or less as follows: “We churchmen burnt our fingers badly over the Galileo case. We went right out on a limb by making statements that were open to scrutiny from the human sciences: statements about concrete, empirically observable things and facts in time and space. And what happened? The limb was rudely chopped off! We were shot down in flames! Then we were almost shot down again when some of us tried to argue with what turned out to be the scientific fact of evolution. Now at last, with Vatican II, we’ve learned our lesson. From now on, theology cannot afford to present as revealed truth any kinds of propositions which, now or in future, might come up for scrutiny by the human sciences – history, biology, astronomy, geology, or whatever. All such propositions come under the jurisdiction of these sciences, and belong to their area of “rightful autonomy.” The Church must stick to ethical statements, and truths which are completely supernatural: the kind which no human science could even investigate. That which science cannot in principle even touch, it can certainly never disprove!”

In other words – according to this approach – the task of showing the harmony between faith and reason should now be carried out by sorting through our inherited doctrinal baggage and classifying its contents according to subject-matter. Those which make statements (especially controversial ones) involving historical and physical realities (e.g. dead bodies or the conception of babies) can now be discarded as excess baggage. We are to leave them lying above ground, as it were, where they will be exposed to possible bombing-raids on the part of the historical or physical sciences. If they never actually get hit, well and good. But if they do, it doesn’t matter. They are expendable, negotiable. Meanwhile, we will gather up the remaining doctrines – the purely transcendent or supernatural ones we have received from our Catholic heritage – and scurry off with this “survival kit” to an underground bunker with a sign on the door saying “revealed truth.” Here, in our theological bomb-shelter, our faith will be utterly impregnable from all possible scientific explosions.

But this line of defence against the accusation that faith is unreasonable will not work at all. In the first place, it is clear that Vatican II cannot mean by the “rightful autonomy of science” the idea that revelation, by definition, can never include any statements of a “scientific” (i.e. physical/historical) nature. That would make the Council contradict itself. Gaudium et Spes cannot be read as contradicting Dei Verbum, which, as we have seen, repeats the teaching of Vatican I that some revealed truths are also truths in principle accessible to unaided reason. (In fact, the Council even gave a specific example of such truth: the textual history of the first sentence in Dei Verbum, §19, shows that it was carefully drafted so as to maintain that the historicity of the Gospels is a truth which is both revealed and accessible to unaided reason.) In rebuking Christians who do not respect the “rightful autonomy” of science, Vatican II did not mean there cannot in principle be any such thing as a revealed physical/historical fact; rather, it means that we must make very sure (by means of a careful exegesis of Scripture and careful survey of what has been said by the Church Fathers and Magisterium) that a given historical/physical proposition really is revealed, before we go asserting it as such to all the world. The Council had in mind here the Galileo case specifically. But even assuming that Galileo’s inquisitors were scientifically wrong (and there are now – since the 1970s – some Catholic and Protestant scholars with PhD’s in physics and astronomy who maintain that they were scientifically right, i.e., that geocentrism is the truth) their error was not in supposing that if the Bible makes assertions about physical reality, these must be accepted as revealed truth (a supposition which they did indeed make – and very rightly). Rather, their error lay in faulty exegesis: in supposing that the Bible does in fact assert a particular physical proposition (geocentrism) which it does not really assert. We have to say that that was the error which led them to trespass unwittingly into the autonomous domain of science.

After some additional discussion, he concludes the section:

It should be clear by now why this kind of dogged persistence in sticking by what we have said for two millennia is not “triumphalism,” pride, obscurantism, or mere “fear of change.” It does not harm the Church’s rational credibility at the bar of reason, as bomb-shelter theologians imagine, but is essential precisely in order to save it from the manifest irrationality of their own “solution.” A witness, in contrast to an investigator, cannot afford to “correct” serious mistakes, because he cannot afford to admit ever having made them! Imagine a witness in a court of law who finds himself embarrassed by the contrary evidence of a certain Miss A., or by that of several other witnesses in regard to his activities on a certain date at Village X. And imagine the response if the witness tries to get out of his difficulty by asking the court to continue believing only certain areas or sections of what he had previously sworn emphatically under oath: “Yes, well, what I said about Miss A. wasn’t really too accurate, I guess. But I assure you that what I said about Mr. B and Mrs. C is God’s truth! And as regards what I said about what happened at Village X on April 15, you’d best forget that. But you can take my word for it – scout’s honor! – that on April 16 I spent the whole day at Village Y, just as I said before!”

Nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything. He has destroyed himself. And neither will any intelligent agnostic (the type of “modern man” for whom an attenuated, “demythologized,” bomb-shelter theology hopes to make the faith more credible) take the Church’s word for anything, if she retracts her previous emphatic “sworn testimony” on even one important point. If the Church could be wrong in proclaiming for two thousand years (in the teeth of rationalistic opposition, ancient and modern) that Jesus’ dead body was raised to life on the third day, why should anyone in his right senses regard her as trustworthy when she keeps on proclaiming that there are three Persons in one God, or that we are destined for heavenly glory after death?

Here, then, we see the basic error of bomb-shelter theology. It is so intent on guarding the faith from all possible attacks from the “bombs” of the secular scholarly disciplines that it unwittingly prods the Church toward a suicidal self-contradiction. In its excessive preoccupation with appearing “respectable” in the sight of the physical and historical sciences, it unconsciously flouts the first principle of the even more fundamental science of logic.

Bomb-shelter theology, as defined by Fr. Harrison, would attempt to make only statements which cannot ever have any empirical consequences. This is in fact absurd, although not exactly for the reasons that he gives. The main problem is that if it has no empirical consequences at all, it cannot have any evidence in favor of it. But any statement that people make has evidence in favor of it, and therefore it cannot avoid having some empirical implications.

However, one can make sure that those implications do not vary much from the implications of opposing theories, and this is more precisely what people actually do when they engage in this project. This has problems as well, although it is not absurd, as it is to say that one’s statements have no empirical implications at all. The main problem here is that to the extent that you make the implications match the implications of opposing theories, you reduce the amount of evidence which is left in favor of your theory. In the end, the probability of your theory will be close to its prior probability according to your implied prior probability distribution. But for many or most religious claims, this prior probability cannot be very high, and so, at least in many cases, there will be little reason to think that the claim is true.

Nonetheless, there are serious problems with Fr. Harrison’s response to this idea. Fr. Harrison claims that after a person has perjured himself, “nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything.” This is not true even in real courtrooms, where for example people are sometimes believed about various things even after they have falsely accused other people, or falsely confessed to a crime themselves.

But it were true in real courtrooms, this would be because the person has been proved to be a liar. If it were simply proved that a person had made a mistake, that would not mean that no one would trust him about anything else. If 90% of the things a person says are true, and 10% are false, then if you take one at random, there is a 90% chance it is true, even after you notice that 10% of the things that he says are false.

Let’s look again at one of his opening paragraphs:

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

There is an error here very similar to the error of Kurt Wise. If the Church ever commits herself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way,” and then admits that it was wrong about that thing, he says, then we will know that the Church was wrong in its claim “to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years.”

Just as Wise was implicitly assuming that he was personally absolutely certain that Scripture is inconsistent with evolution, Fr. Harrison is implicitly assuming personal certainty about something here.

In the first place, what does it mean to say that the Church committed itself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way”? Does it mean the Church said, “This doctrine is true, and if it turns out to be false, then all of the teachings of the Church are false?” It is doubtful the Church has ever said such a thing, or ever would say such a thing. And even if it did, Harrison’s argument would not follow, since if the Church could be wrong about the doctrine, it could also be wrong in claiming that all of its other teachings would be false.

More likely he means to say that the Church teaches something in a definitive way if it claims as much certainty as the Church can have. “This doctrine is true, and there are no doctrines about which the Church is more certain.” Again, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church can be mistaken in its most certain doctrines, that does not necessarily mean that all of them are false, just as said above about someone who is right 90% of the time. It simply means that the Church does not possess absolute certainty.

It could mean, however, that the Church is making that very claim: “There is a 100% chance that this doctrine is true and no possibility of it being in error.” Again, however, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church made such a claim and turned out to be wrong, this would simply mean that the Church was wrong not only about the doctrine, but also about its ability to have absolute certainty about it. It would not follow that it possessed no truth at all.

Basically Fr. Harrison is assuming in advance that he knows that either the Church can have and does have absolute certainty about various things, or that there is no truth in the Church at all. But there is nothing necessary about this in principle.

In a second part of the essay, he sets out a syllogism with which he says that certain theologians conclude that the opening chapters of Genesis are not historical in genre:

  • Major – All Scripture (including Genesis 1-3) is inspired by God, and is therefore without error in all that the writers intended to assert.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that Genesis 1-3, understood as a factual, historical account of how the world and man began, would be in error.
  • Concl. – Therefore the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 did not intend to assert in these chapters a factual, historical account of how the world and man began.

He then criticizes this using a parable:

Consider this little parable. In a certain far-off land the dominant religion includes the dogma that on the dark side of the moon there are large craters full of salt water. Comes the twentieth century and space-travel. Rocket-ships finally get to photograph all angles of the moon, including the dark side. The believers are cast into deep anguish and a crisis of faith by the terrible news that, while the new photographs indeed show plenty of craters, all of them are bone-dry! At first there is a reaction of rejection. The hierarchy assures the faithful that the photographs are all faked, as part of a Satanic plot. As time goes on, however, this becomes hard to sustain, since some astronauts of hitherto unquestioned orthodoxy themselves take part in a space-flight to the moon and see for themselves the faith-shattering emptiness of those great craters, reporting this sad news to their brethren on return.

Many of the faithful leave the Church in disillusionment; but for others, faith does not remain shattered for very long. The more learned theologians soon come up with a “bomb-shelter” solution which satisfies well-educated, sophisticated believers. It can be set out in another syllogism.

  • Major – It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed in the craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Concl. – Therefore there is invisible salt-water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.

This eminently reasonable solution comes to be accepted by the bulk of the faithful, because after all, it is logical (the conclusion follows ineluctably from the premises); it is orthodox (the traditional dogma is faithfully preserved); and by accepting the minor premise, this revised faith is perfectly in line with the latest developments in science. Armed (and comforted) by this modern development in doctrine, the guardians of the new orthodoxy can afford to shake their heads condescendingly at the tiny minority of fundamentalists, who, in their naive literalism, regard the new theology as nonsense and continue to insist on the hypothesis of hoax and fraud in all the photographs and testimonies regarding the craters. These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible. The only perplexing thing for the more enlightened believers is that the great bulk of their contemporaries seem to agree with the fundamentalists on this last point. The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern scientific man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.

What lesson, then, can be learnt from this comparison? Somebody will say that my imaginary syllogism is a mere caricature of the very real and currently respectable one regarding Genesis. And perhaps some non-Catholic reader will say that I seem to be very free in throwing stones for one who himself lives in a glass house: who am I to go laughing at a belief in “invisible water” when I and all orthodox Catholics profess a firm belief in the invisible Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist?

But I am not laughing at a belief in “invisible water” as such. If the conclusion to my second syllogism raised any sort of a smile on your lips, dear reader, then ask yourself why it did so. After all, suppose I had begun my tale by saying, “Once upon a time there was a tribe that venerated water as the source of all life. One of the mysteries handed down from their ancestors was that a certain sacred shrine contained an ancient phial which, as far as human eyes could see, was quite empty, but which in fact contained a sacred, supernatural water – the source and well-spring of all earthly water.” I suspect this would have elicited very few guffaws. You might have thought, “Well, they were pretty superstitious tribesmen. Anyway, what next? If this is a joke, I’m waiting for the punchline.” Whereas when you read the Conclusion to my syllogism about the moon-water, you immediately knew it was the punchline of a joke.

And that is precisely the point. What makes the “invisible water” laughable in the syllogism is the fact that it comes at the end, and not at the beginning. One expects religions to have mysteries, but normally they are traditional mysteries, handed down from what are (or at least, what believers understand to be) the authoritative, foundational sources of the religion itself. (This of course is the case with Catholic belief in the Eucharistic Presence.) But in our parable of the moon-water, its invisibility is a brand-new “mystery,” which no believer (or unbeliever) has ever heard of before! It pops up out of nowhere at the end of a syllogism. And it springs, moreover, not from some kind of organic or logical development based on the religion’s own doctrinal and spiritual patrimony; rather, it is forced abruptly upon the believers by a minor premise coming from an outside source which is coldly indifferent – even irreverent – toward these sacred sources: the merciless glare of empirical observation. The real incongruity in the situation, of course, is that the learned theologians are engaging in sophistry in accepting this new “development,” while the “stupid” fundamentalists (like the faithless bulk of their ordinary fellow-citizens) have enough common-sense to see that the whole thing is completely “phoney,” even if they might not be able to explain in an abstract way where the fallacy lies. As in the old fable, it takes the simplicity of a child to see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

It is not in fact as easy as one might think to give an abstract exposition of this common-sense insight; but perhaps the basic grievance of the poor fundamentalist gives us the clue. For the reason we have already given, his major complaint with the new theology of moon-water – and a very reasonable one it is – will not so much be its intrinsic implausibility (his faith may well already include other marvels as wondrous as invisible water), but rather, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” Reflecting on these naive, but very pertinent questions, we can perhaps formulate the following principle:

If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious, the Conclusion: (a) is not itself true in any obvious way; (b) is the sort of proposition which, if true, is normally reached by quite different methods of inquiry from those of the syllogism; and (c) has never been, and is not now, supported by any evidence from those methods proper to it, or by any other evidence independent of the Major and Minor of the syllogism; – then in that case it is gratuitous and unscientific to affirm that Conclusion as true. Rather, it should be presumed that one (or perhaps both) of the premises which entail such a groundless assertion must be false.

In the case of our parable, the Conclusion fulfilled condition (a), because the assertion that invisible water exists is by no means obviously true. It fulfilled condition (b), because it is the kind of proposition which, if true, would normally have to be proposed as a supernatural mystery, backed up by some pretty convincing and well-attested miracles on the part of the one proposing it. This is not, however, the way in which the sect’s theologians arrived at their “new mystery.” And it fulfills condition (c), because the founding fathers or prophets of the religion never so much as hinted that the moon-water might turn out to be invisible. Nor has any new prophet appeared declaring that the invisible water is indeed there, and backing up his claim with some astounding prodigies. And finally, there is not a shred of evidence from any other independent source for the truth of the conclusion.

(There could conceivably be such evidence, of course. We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing-craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground-level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see! With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp) – it’s (glug) – SALTY!!” For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all. The only moon-water believers who seem slightly embarrassed in the midst of this spectacular triumph are the more radically progressive bomb-shelter theologians, who have for years been teaching the new generation of clergy not to be so naive as to anticipate this kind of outcome from the long-awaited crater-landing. It had become axiomatic in such sophisticated circles that moon-water is to be understood as not only invisible, but also intangible.)

Once again, certain readers may object that while some people might find this all very diverting, there is no serious point to it all. After all, am I not just caricaturing responsible modern theology by my syllogism about the moon-water? Well, only in that its Major premise is clearly a lot more implausible than that of the first syllogism (i.e., the divine inspiration of the Bible), so as to make the point more clearly. But I am seriously maintaining that the reasoning process which leads today’s respectable Christian theologians to postulate a “non-literal,” or “non-factual,” literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts is every bit as invalid and unscientific as that which led our “moonies” to revise their theology in such a startling way. They produced a brand-new mystery unsupported by any appropriate evidence: invisible water. And our learned men since the middle of the last century have also produced a brand-new mystery, unsupported by any appropriate evidence: an invisible literary genre.

However, our real-life situation regarding Genesis seems to me more desperate. A century and a half after the existence of a “non-historical” literary genre for Genesis 1-3 was suddenly “deduced” from the studies (not in Hebrew literature, mind you, but in geology and biology) of scholars such as Lyell and Darwin, our exegetes are still looking for it. One recalls here the status of the planet Pluto in the late 1920s: astronomers had deduced that it “must” be out there before they actually spotted it with telescopes. Since their deduction was based on methods proper to the discovery of heavenly bodies, it is not too surprising that they found what they were looking for in short order (in 1930, to be precise). And since our deduction about the existence of a “non-factual” literary genre in Genesis 1-3 was not based on methods even remotely connected with literary criticism, it is also unsurprising that we have not found what we are looking for, even after more than a century of searching. Unsurprising – and also unreassuring as regards any reasonable prospect that the search might one day be successful. Since all appropriate literary methods have so far failed to identify the creation accounts as belonging to any known “non-historical” genre (such as poetry, drama, apocalypse, fiction, midrash, allegory, parable, etc.), and since the field of literature (unlike that of nature) now contains very little unexplored territory, then it might be time to recognize honestly that this genre which just “has to” be there is one which is permanently undiscoverable by any method at all which human ingenuity can devise! In terms of the parable, our “water” has failed not only the visibility test, but also the tangibility test. For us, not only the crater photographs, but also the crater landing-craft, have failed to discover that “water” which we believe “must” be there. This is why I say that our fantasy syllogism about the moon-water, far from caricaturing the real-life syllogism about science and Genesis, is actually too gentle with it! Today’s new “orthodoxy” regarding the literary genre of Genesis 1-3 is in fact more ridiculous than the “new interpretation” of moon-water produced in the moonies’ hour of crisis. They felt obliged to postulate the reality of invisible water; our most respected Catholic theologians have for decade after decade felt obliged to postulate an invisible and intangible literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts.

Fr. Harrison’s “principle” that “If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious etc” is false. This should be obvious from the ad hoc method with which he came up with it in order to refute the syllogism concerning Genesis. But in any case, it would be easy enough to give examples where he would not deny that the conclusion is true, despite matching his principle. For example, using the methods of Gödel’s theorems, one can construct an equation which has no solution in the integers, and which cannot be proven by the methods of arithmetic to have no solution. One proves that it has no solution with a quite different method. It can easily be seen that this will violate his principle, unless we groundlessly assert that it has solutions nonetheless.

However, he is correctly recognizing that a syllogism “goes both ways” in terms of evidence. If the premises would ensure that the conclusion is true, then the improbability of the conclusion is evidence against the truth of the premises. The claim about the invisible moon water does indeed seem improbable, and this argues that for the likelihood that one or both of the premises is false. And the same thing is true about the argument about Genesis. To the degree that you think it unlikely that Genesis could have such a genre, you should think that it is likely that one or both of the premises in that syllogism are false.

And this is the real issue for Fr. Harrison. The conclusion of the Genesis syllogism seems improbable to him. And to the extent that this is true, this means that one of the premises is probably false. But we wouldn’t form the syllogism in the first place unless we thought that science has shown something about the origins of man and the world. This suggests that the false premise is the major premise. And Fr. Harrison doesn’t like this conclusion. Consequently he would prefer to think that science has not shown anything about the origins of man and the world.

As we have seen, religious views often have semi-political motivations. We can see this in Fr. Harrison’s parable: “For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all.” The terminology of victory and defeat indicates this kind of motivation. Someone who wanted to know the truth would not be defeated if his error was corrected, but he would be attaining the truth, which was after all his goal. Thus Socrates says in the Gorgias, “And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.” We can see the same thing in the questions, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” To the degree that someone is interested in the truth, learning something new is not an issue, nor does it matter from whom it comes.

Objecting to “bomb-shelter theology,” Fr. Harrison is building himself another kind of bomb shelter. If he conceded that the Church was somewhat mistaken about various things it has said in the past, in principle it would still be possible that there is divine truth in the Church, as I said in the first part. But given that situation, Fr. Harrison would feel that it is probable that there is no such truth at all in the Church. And likewise, if Fr. Harrison accepted the minor premise, he would feel that it is likely that the major premise is false. By asserting that science has established nothing about human origins, it seems to him that he is asserting something which is overall more likely to be true. In his parable, he says, “These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible.” Here his intention is to defend this kind of theology, but it in fact really is a “narrow, fortress mentality.” And not simply because one should allow for the possibility of growth, but also because one should allow for the possibility that one’s whole religion is indeed indefensible.

Apart from all this, Fr. Harrison is making a mistake similar to that of Kurt Wise in a second way. Just as Wise was mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1, Fr. Harrison is mistaken about it in more or less the same way. We have already seen that Genesis 1 is not about the order of time, but about the order of matter and form. And inasmuch as this interpretation was already suggested by St. Augustine, he is also mistaken in speaking of this as an “invisible genre” which does not previously appear in Christian tradition.

Decisions of Faith

In the implicit discussion between Kurt Wise, Trent Horn, and Gregory Dawes, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes disagree about the truth of Christianity and Catholicism, while they agree that a person should be willing to decide about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas based on arguments. Kurt Wise, in contrast, claims that there can be no argument or evidence whatsoever, no matter how strong, that could ever bring him to change his mind.

If Wise’s claim is taken in the very strong sense of the claim to possess absolute subjective certainty, namely the kind that implies that he literally cannot be wrong, this has been more or less adequately refuted in the original post on sola meThus for example Wise holds that Scripture is the Word of God in a strong sense, namely one that implies that God actually asserts the things asserted in Scripture. Many Christians do not hold this. Likewise, Wise holds that Scripture asserts that the earth is young, and again, many Christians do not hold this. So Wise has the responsibility of justifying his position, rather than asserting that he has the infallible knowledge that he alone is right and that other Christians are wrong.

The same thing would be true if the issue were his general commitment to Christianity. Here it is a bit more complex because the real question in this case is, “Is it good for me to belong to a Christian community?“, but one can give neither a positive nor a negative answer to this question without asserting various facts about the world, facts that will differ from one individual to another, but facts nonetheless. Once again Wise will have no special claim to possess an ability to discern these facts infallibly.

If Wise is merely claiming to possess objective certainty, perhaps on account of the possession of divine faith which cannot be in error, then he should be open to changing his mind based on arguments, as Horn and Dawes hold, in the same way that a person should be open to acknowledging mistakes in his mathematical arguments, should someone happen to point out such mistakes.

However, our earlier discussions suggest that the real issue is different, that it is not a question of any kind of certainty, whether subjective or objective. We have seen that belief in general is voluntary, and that it involves various motives. We have seen that this applies especially to beliefs remote from the senses, and to God and religion in particular. All of this suggests that something different is at stake in claims such Wise’s. Let’s look again at Wise’s concluding statement:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

He seems to suggest having reasons for holding young earth creationism, namely reasons which would make it likely to be true. In particular, “that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” But if God says something, this seems to mean it is true. So he appears to be claiming a reason to think that creationism is objectively true. On the other hand, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist,” stands directly in contrast to this. In other words, here he seems to be saying that the kind of reasons that make a thing likely to be true or false do not matter to him.

The truth of the matter is the latter more than the former. In other words, someone who says about a religious issue, “No evidence could ever change my mind about this,” is not saying this because he possesses the kinds of certainty discussed above. Rather, he is suggesting that evidence and his motives for belief are detached from one another to such an extent that differences in evidence will never give him a sufficient motive to change his decision to believe.

We can see this in Wise’s description of his personal decision, found in the same short text from In Six Days.

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but …well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not — at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth — or at least at the same time — and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought — that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

The day came when I took the scissors to the very last verse — nearly the very last verse of the Bible. It was Revelation 22:19: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” It was with trembling hands that I cut out this verse, I can assure you! With the task complete, I was now forced to make the decision I had dreaded for so long.

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. However, at that moment I thought back to seven or so years before when a Bible was pushed to a position in front of me and I had come to know Jesus Christ. I had in those years come to know Him. I had become familiar with His love and His concern for me. He had become a real friend to me. He was the reason I was even alive both physically and spiritually. I could not reject Him. Yet, I had come to know Him through His Word. I could not reject that either. It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

This is not a description of discovering that creationism is objectively true and that evolution is objectively false. It is the description of a personal decision, which is framed in terms of being faithful to Christ and rejecting evolution, or accepting evolution and rejecting Christ. Wise chooses to be faithful to Christ. Since this was not a question of weighing evidence for anything in the first place, any evidence that comes up should never affect his motives for his decision. Thus he says that no evidence can ever change his decision.

I would argue that in this way too, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are correct, and that Kurt Wise is mistaken. The problem is that people have a hard time understanding their motives for believing things. Most people think without reflection that most of their beliefs are simply motivated by the truth and by the evidence for that truth. So if asked, “Would you change your most important and fundamental beliefs if you are confronted with conclusive evidence against them?”, most people will respond by saying that such evidence cannot and will not come up, since their beliefs are true, rather than saying that they would not change their beliefs in that situation. Kurt Wise, on the other hand, does not deny that the situation could come up, but says that he would not change his mind even in this situation.

The implication of Wise’s claim is that his motives for belief are entirely detached from evidence. This is actually true to a great extent, as can be seen from his description of his decision. However, it is not entirely true. Just as people are mistaken if they suppose that their beliefs are motivated by evidence alone, so Wise is mistaken to suppose that evidence is entirely irrelevant to his decision.

This can be seen most of all from the fact that Wise’s position requires that he make the three claims mentioned in yesterday’s post, namely that God always tells the truth, that Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that what is asserted in Scripture is asserted by God, and that Scripture asserts that the earth is young (or in the context of his decision, that evolution contradicts Scripture; he says that the conclusion that the earth is young was something additional.) If any of these three claims are mistaken, then Wise could decide to be faithful to Christ without rejecting evolution. So the framing of his decision depends on knowing that these three things are true. And precisely because these three claims together imply that evolution is false, evidence for evolution is also evidence that at least one of these three claims is mistaken. And note that in his description of the events that led up to his decision, Wise is in fact mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1.

Since evidence for evolution is evidence that one of the three claims is mistaken, then if “all the evidence in the universe” were to indicate that evolution is true, all the evidence in the universe would also indicate that Wise has made a mistake in the way he framed his decision. Evidence remains relevant to his decision, therefore, because he may have been mistaken in this way, even if the decision in itself is not about weighing evidence for anything.

Someone could respond that Wise was wrong to frame his decision in this way, or at least to make it absolute in this particular way, but that he would be right to hold absolutely to the decision to be faithful to Christ, and to say that evidence is entirely irrelevant to this decision, as long as he does not bring in evolution, creation, Scripture, and so on.

The problem with this is that even if he frames his decision as “to be faithful or unfaithful to Christ,” the framing of this decision still requires that he assert various facts about the world, just as his actual decision did. For example, if Christ did not exist, as certain people believe, then one cannot be faithful to Christ as to a person, and again he would turn out to have been mistaken in the very way he framed his decision. So his decision requires that he assert that Christ existed, which is a claim about the world. Of course it is not very likely that Christ did not exist, but evidence is relevant to the issue, and this is only one of many possible ways that he could be mistaken. If Christ was not worthy of trust, and Wise knew this, perhaps he would make a different decision.

To put this in an entirely general way, even if your decision seems to involve only motives that seem unrelated to truth and to evidence, “this is a good decision,” is itself a claim about the world. Either this claim is true, or it is false, and evidence is relevant to it. If it is false, you should change your mind about that decision. Consequently you should always be open to evidence and arguments against the truth of your position, or even against the goodness of your decision, just as Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes assert.

There is still another way that Kurt Wise is mistaken. He is mistaken to think that evidence should be irrelevant to his decision. But he is also mistaken to think that evidence is in fact irrelevant to it. He says that he would not change his mind even if all the evidence in the universe stood against him, but this is not the case. He is a human being who possesses human nature, and he is changeable in the same way that other human beings are. It is clear from the above discussion that Wise would be better off if he were more open to reality, but this does not mean that reality does not affect him at all, or that things could not happen which would change his mind, as for example if he had a personal experience of God in which God explained to him that his understanding of Scripture was mistaken.