A Response to Alec’s First Response: Solipsism and Pastoral Contexts

Very glad to bring the discussion of whether and when we should argue for God onto the Oriel pages. Also very glad to read Alec’s first response, which in good Wittgensteinian fashion places arguments in specific contexts to draw out the extra-logical features relevant to their analysis. This sets things up very nicely.

I think Alec has clearly and charitably expressed my first concern. I also agree with his claim that we can understand our use of philosophical arguments in theological contexts as an attempt to try and think in a responsible way; that is, in a way which is subject to and determined by the God we’re trying to talk about. If I’m right in my understanding of Alec here, then I hope that this is a point of genuine similarity in our thought processes, strange as it might seem. (I am less inclined to agree with his claim that our best academic standards could approximate the divine rationality on the basis that we are made in God’s image, but that disagreement seems to me of minor relevance to this post. It would be interesting, however, to see what people think our being made in the image of God implies for our anthropology.)

The First Legend

This basic agreement stated, here’s my response to Alec’s first legend. As I see it, this legend elucidates the following idea: that to doubt or require argument for the existence of a given person is not to render them subject to the measures of human reason. I’m going to accept as given the assumption that Alec is right in saying that his classmate is not passing judgement on him by doubting his existence. I then have two doubts about its potential significance to the question of whether or not we subject God to measures of human rationality by arguing for his existence.

First, I am not sure to what extent the case of Alec can be generalised to God. Now, I know this can be hard for anyone to hear, but I feel fairly confident in saying that Alec is not God (not that he would claim to be, ofc)! This in and of itself doesn’t mean much, because Alec isn’t Ed either, but I think there might be some substantive differences between God and us which are relevant to this point. Specifically: the fact that God’s existence and God’s nature cannot be divorced from each other might entail that to pass a rational judgement on whether or not God exists is to pass a rational judgement on his ‘character’. In virtue of the idea that God’s goodness and God’s perfection cannot be separated from His existence, it might be that in claiming that God’s existence should or could be underwritten, argued for by, or measured according to human reason we are in fact claiming that His goodness and His perfection should or could be as well. I’m not overly confident on this point however, and the main reason I’m writing it is to see what responses there might be (if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly more qualified to evaluate this line of thought than I am).

The second (and to my mind more important) doubt is this. I’m not sure that the legend Alec describes is analogous to someone doubting God’s existence in a way we would try to argue against. After all, in the case described, Alec’s existence could presumably be sufficiently demonstrated by his entering the room. A more analogous case, I think, would be this: that even upon Alec’s entering the room, his classmate continued to say he didn’t existence on the basis that they don’t believe in the existence of other minds. And here I think we stumble across a fact which also can’t be underwritten by human argument, not this time because of the ultimate supremacy of the object, but because anyone who doubts it thereby rejects the paradigm we must occupy in order to accept it.

This of course moves us onto my second argument against arguments, which Alec has broached in a post which I have not yet read. So, in the interests of keeping these posts relatively focussed, I’ll read that one then try and develop this a little further (if appropriate!). For now, I’ll just say that a similar analysis of similar questions can be found in Simon Glendinning’s ‘On Being With Others’, which explores ways of meeting sceptical questions by reframing the context within which they arise (a strategy which I think has very interesting theological applications).

There is, of course, some relevant distinctions to be made when comparing the question of other minds with the question of God’s existence. The question of other minds tends to be one of agnosticism; questioning whether or not we can know that others have minds. It is rarely the case that an individual doubts the existence of other minds in the way they might doubt the existence of God, i.e, by living as if they were the only source of consciousness in reality. This is relevant to our discussion here as I think different argumentative strategies should be employed when in discussion with an agnostic sceptic than with an atheist sceptic. All the same, I think it worth thinking about how we would try and argue with someone who flat-out rejected the existence of other minds on the basis that they could find no conclusive argument for believing in them (especially if this is borne out in their practise). This, it seems to me, would be a debate of an analogous structure between an atheist and a theist.

The Second Legend

On the subject of reframing contexts: Alec’s second legend is brilliantly employed to draw out the potential pastoral necessity of argument in theology. I think he point he makes is well make, and I agree with it: ‘there is no expectation that the knowledge of God will consistently seize us, in proper Barthian fashion – sometimes we must reflect, even test [our beliefs].’ I also think, however, that this pastoral context is significantly different to a context of attempting to argue for God’s existence against someone who either doesn’t believe in God or doesn’t believe we can know Him to exist.

(On a side note: Alec, would it be possible for you to clarify how you’re using ‘in proper Barthian fashion’. As I’m reading it, it could imply either ‘it is properly Barthian to expect that the knowledge of God will consistently seize us’ or ‘it is properly Barthian to not expect that the knowledge of God will consistently seize us.’ If it is the former, I would disagree with you over its being properly Barthian; if the latter, I would agree: it is integral to Barth’s writing that we cannot assume that the knowledge of God will consistently seize us, hence why we must both take extreme care over what we say in the Church without ever resting in the belief that what we say could be enough.)

Now: in the legend of St. Francis and Brother Ruffino, we have the case of someone who believes in God being deceived about God’s nature. St. Francis is able to persuade Ruffino that he is being deceived however (let us assume with a mix of scripture, tradition, and good old fashioned human reason). Relating this to the case of arguments for God’s existence, alongside arguments about his goodness and mercy, I’m imagining a case like this: Brother Ruffino is deceived again by the devil into believing that, though God certainly exists, he could not possibly be the creator of the universe. St. Francis makes appeal to scripture and tradition, but neither of these are persuasive. So he employs a Thomist argument relating to first causes and unmoved movers, convincing Brother Ruffino that there must indeed be a first cause of all creation. If Ruffino believes that God exists, however, then how could he believe this first cause to be anything but God? Ruffino, quite rightly, is able to use this reasoning to see brought the devil’s deception, and is again able to say the Nicene Creed without crossing his fingers.

If this case works (and I think this probably is actually the context within which many arguments for God’s existence were employed in the pre-modern period), then I think St. Francis’ mode of argument is almost entirely appropriate. I also think, however, that the context here plays an important role in the import of the conclusion, and that the case of St. Francis and Brother Ruffino is significantly different to the case of St. Francis and Brother Dawkins. I would not, then, call this arguing for God, least of all for his existence: I would call it arguing from God, or at least about God in a context where His basic existence is taken as given (that is to say, on faith).

I think what Alec has laid is most closely related to the third type of argument I try and describe in my original post, but with a distinctly pastoral bent. As such, I still believe it to be a path fraught with peril. It is not impossible, after all, that Brother Ruffino would be able to use good old fashioned human reason to show that an infinite regress of causes need not worry us in the least. Or, he might be able to say to St. Francis ‘indeed, there is a first cause, but this first cause is posited and described by the methods of modern science: whatever it is, it ain’t God.’ St. Francis might believe Ruffino to be mistaken in this, but the Francis himself is not necessarily in so epistemically privileged a position as to guarantee his reason against Ruffino’s. If, moreover, Ruffino comes to believe that he could only know God to be Creator on the basis of Francis’ arguments, then we are in a position where if those arguments fail, so God’s creatorship is discarded too. And this, though not necessarily what occurs in such situations, would be a case of subjecting God’s nature and God’s existence to the measures of human reason. As such, I think we should be very careful about using rational argument in discussion about God’s nature, at most using it to suggest, not prove, the things the creeds state about God.

All this leads into, in my mind, the most dangerous possibility contained within this scene: the possibility that, having been persuaded that God is indeed creator, Ruffino takes the means of persuasion in this particular to be the grounds upon which God’s entire being can be premised. He thus thinks that he can guarantee God’s existence by this argument, when the argument in fact had force when it was employed in a context where God’s existence itself was not in doubt. This is the kind of argument, not argument about or from God’s nature, but argument for God’s existence, that I am most concerned with. And I think it is important to bear in mind the possibility that those arguments from or about God might always be taken out of the context within which they were used, and so used in such a way as to render God little more than the conclusion of a human argument.

At the same time, to quote the man himself, ‘the mere ‘dangers’ of a doctrine never entitle us to describe it as false doctrine.’ (CD 1/2, 525) The fact that St. Francis’ arguments could be misused is not a reason to suppose he is wrong to use them as he does, nor that we would be wrong to do likewise: after all, I’m pretty sure there is no argument which cannot be taken out of context and used illicitly. And in the context Alec has described, I think it is fair to say that St. Francis is indeed attempting to use human reason in the service of God, in the hope that this reason might be subjected to and determined by His self-revelation as the Triune God in Jesus Christ. In conclusion: whilst I still think we shouldn’t try and argue for God’s existence, I admit the possibility that there are times where Thomas’ Five Ways might be useful pastoral tools, so long as they’re clearly marked ‘handle with care’.


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