Courtier’s Reply, Follow-Up

Yesterday I linked to P.Z. Myers discussion of a common anti-Dawkins meme. Specifically, that Dawkins’ arguments in The God Delusion are hopelessly superficial, and that his failure to ponder seriously various works of academic theology render his book incomplete at best, and vapid at worst.

Richard Dawkins himself has weighed in on Myers’ comments:

Congratulations to P Z Myers on this brilliant piece of satire. It applies not just to Allen Orr’s review in NYRB, but to all those many reviews of TGD that complain of my lack of reading in theology. My own stock reply (“How many learned books of fairyology and hobgoblinology have you read?”) is far less witty.

Over at Stranger Fruit, John Lynch is less impressed:

I want to stress here that I am not going to discuss the truth of the claim that The God Delusion may exhibit Dawkins’ “lack of reading in theology”. I will merely note that Dawkins does not reply by claiming to have read theological works. One must assume either (a) he hasn’t engaged with such works, or (b) he has but instead of demonstrating that fact would rather give a glib “witty” reply. Take your pick. Either way, I ask you to consider the following:

A common critique of those that see Darwinism [X] as a secular mythology [Y] is that they fail to engage with the primary literature. One can conceive of a creationist dismissing such criticism by using the same “stock reply” as Dawkins, i.e. “I believe X to be the epistemological equivalent of Y. Since you don’t read learned books on Y (or such books don’t exist), you cannot criticize me for my lack of reading in X.”

Now, I think we can all agree that this would be an unsatisfying reply to the criticism at hand. Obviously, our creationist would have to first prove the epistemological equivalence of X and Y. Similarly, Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and “fairyology” [Y]before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism. Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing – and that involves reading the theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion. Note that I am making a distinction between the writings of theologians – who obviously have a commitment to the religious claims in question – and those of philosophers of religion who may or may not be religious (consider, for example, that Hume was a philosopher of religion, as was Nietzsche). The question remains, does The God Delusion demonstrate such an engagement? Defenders of Dawkins (following Dawkins himself) will perhaps claim that it does not have to, especially considering the work is a popular argument for atheism. Others may find that defense unconvincing.

I would make a few points in reply. The first is that one of the main purposes of TGD is to show that theology has no content. That is, Dawkins has shown the epistemological equivalence of fairyology and theology.

The second point is that most of that body of literature classified as theology and the philosophy of religion is totally irrelevant to anything Dawkins was addressing in the book. Dawkins was considering the question of whether there is any sound reason to believe in a creator God. He considers all of the major arguments offered by theologians and philosophers over the years, and shows that all such arguments are seriously flawed. That’s called serious engagement. Having done that, the theological literature on Christology, or process theology, or the Biblical justifications for various Chrisitan doctirnes, etc. are simply irrelevant.

But the main point is that Lynch makes a fundamental error in analogizing Dawkins’ response to that of a creationist being dismissive of having to read the primary literature on evolution. Commenting intelligently on evolution requires you to master certain basic concepts of biology. There is no way to gain that mastery without having engaged the biological literature in a serious way. This is why one of the primary responses to creationist arguments is to show that the creationists have made fundamental errors in their understanding of the relevant scientific concepts.

That is not the case with arguments for God’s existence. Anyone capable of thinking clearly is as qualified as anyone else to discuss the question of God’s existence. It’s not as if theologians have mastered some body of technical material that makes them better qualified than non-theologians to discuss the questions Dawkins addresses.

That is why most of the people criticizing Dawkins in this way do not point to specific places in the theological literature where he would find compelling answers to the arguments he makes. The critics seem to think their job is finished merely by showing they are aware of various bits of theological esoterica. This is precisely the point Myers was making.

Criticizing Dawkins for not having undergone a rigorous training regimen in theology is not a response to his arguments, it is a way to avoid having to address them. And when the critics do get around to addressing his arguments, they nearly always get it wrong (as I have shown in several posts at this blog.)

Comments

  1. #1 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    He considers all of the major arguments offered by theologians and philosophers over the years, and shows that all such arguments are seriously flawed. That’s called serious engagement.

    Oh please! In thirty pages … “serious engagement”? Come on. Hume took longer than that and did a damned better job.

    Anyone capable of thinking clearly is as qualified as anyone else to discuss the question of God’s existence.

    But they must show sufficient knowledge of the history of the arguments (for and against). Otherwise they just end up caricaturing them.

    No one is claiming that Dawkins needs “a rigorous training regimen in theology” – he does however need some exposure in philosophical argument regarding religion.

    Compare the scholarly nature of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Both are popular works. One is philosophically nuanced, the other isn’t.

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    December 27, 2006

    One deals with an important scientific subject, the other doesn’t.

  3. #3 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    One deals with an important scientific subject, the other doesn’t.

    This doesn’t preclude them both from being philosophically nuanced, and you know that PZ.

  4. #4 MarkP
    December 27, 2006

    Perhaps an argument by contradiction will be illustrative. Consider a world where, once in a while, a minister/cleric/priest/rabbi/whatever actually came up with an objective discovery of knowledge. Predictions of hurricanes or famines, an interpretation of a biblical quote that led to a new medicine, or an effective technique in psychology. It wouldn’t have to be a hard science, and it wouldn’t have to be absolutely irrefutable. I’d settle for anything we’d expect our hypothetical reasonable man to acknowledge. Then theology and the whole god question would warrent the intellectual respect Lynch and others are lobbying for on it’s behalf.

    The closest I can come is the work of Ramanujan (apologies for the spelling), an early 20th century mathematician who had a, dare I say it, miraculous talent, and to whom math was meaningless if he was not trying to read the mind of god. However, even there one can easily attribute his accomplishments to his intellect alone, and view his god beliefs as excess baggage.

    There is simply nothing there! The totality of the contribution of theology to mankind’s knowledge is a big fat goose egg. It’s just a giant verbal cloud, perhaps logically interwoven in places, but never touching down on planet reality.

    And yes, I’ve read and studied all the biggies, though granted it was some years ago. I lost interest because I stopped hearing anything new. It’s the philosophical equivalent of tic-tac-toe, and ultimately, the greatest example of what happens when great desire overwhelms great intellect.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 27, 2006

    Oh please! In thirty pages … “serious engagement”? Come on. Hume took longer than that and did a damned better job.

    Page count is not a reliable measure of seriousness, John. Point to a specific error or important nuance in the arguments for God’s existence that Dawkins overlooked and then your critcisms might have some merit.

    As for The Selfish Gene vs. The God Delusion, the former dealt with a more complicated subject than the latter. Of course it was more nuanced. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make with this comparison.

    And let me remind you that in your previous post you wrote:

    Similarly, Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and “fairyology” [Y]before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism. Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing – and that involves reading the theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion.

    I’m afraid the distinction between “knowing what theologians are actually writing,” and “reading the theological writings of believers,” and “undergoing a rigorous training regimen in theology” is lost on me. The fact remains you are criticizing Dawkins for not being better read, rather than engaging his arguments. Perhaps you could point to something specific he should have read that would have altered what he wrote in his book.

  6. #6 windy
    December 27, 2006

    But the main point is that Lynch makes a fundamental error in analogizing Dawkins’ response to that of a creationist being dismissive of having to read the primary literature on evolution. Commenting intelligently on evolution requires you to master certain basic concepts of biology…

    That is not the case with arguments for God’s existence. Anyone capable of thinking clearly is as qualified as anyone else to discuss the question of God’s existence.

    Another difference: creationists aren’t criticized for not having read Darwin on breeding pigeons, Huxley on chalk or Weismann on the tails of mice. It’s enough to be acquainted with the modern versions of the arguments.

  7. #7 PZ Myers
    December 27, 2006

    This doesn’t preclude them both from being philosophically nuanced

    Of course not. I’m sure someone could write a philosophically nuanced treatise on the tooth fairy, too. One solid piece of evidence trumps any amount of philosophy anyone could throw at it, though, and millennia of failure in the Theological Research Program is a pretty good reason to abandon it, no matter how clever its practitioners might be. (I quite agree with you that theologians and philosophers of religion aren’t stupid people, and they do come up with some impressive rationalizations. It just doesn’t matter. The road of science is littered with the discarded debris of many beautiful ideas.)

  8. #8 Caledonian
    December 27, 2006

    Chainsaws lack nuance. This, however, is not a deficiency, since their primary functions don’t involve nuance.

    Sledgehammers also lack nuance. That does not prevent them from shattering false idols quite effectively.

    You are a fool, Mr. Lynch.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 27, 2006

    Caledonian-

    You’re not helping. Please leave the personal attacks out of it.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    December 27, 2006

    Jason Rosenhouse: “I’m afraid the distinction between “knowing what theologians are actually writing,” and “reading the theological writings of believers,”

    I may be wrong here, but I suspect that what Lynch has in mind is that the theological writings of nonbelievers usually are end up categorized as being writings of philosophers of religion.

    Jason Rosenhouse: “The fact remains you are criticizing Dawkins for not being better read, rather than engaging his arguments.”

    No, he is criticizing Dawkins for giving the misleading impression that he is bragging about his ignorance.

    Jason Rosenhouse: “Anyone capable of thinking clearly is as qualified as anyone else to discuss the question of God’s existence.”

    Say you wanted to write a book on a topic that you think is bunk, like astrology or homeopathy. Are you telling me that you wouldn’t do at least a little research? Wouldn’t you at least look at, say, the Skeptic’s Dictionary?

    Look at what an idiot I looked like when I didn’t do my homework on The God Delusion, and part of it was because I had seen Dawkins before, noticed that he had a tendency to be a bit sloppy, and assumed that the negative reviews were right in saying it was just more of the same. Just because you think something is bunk doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do enough research to make sure that you get your facts straight before commenting on it, even if you think you’ve already seen enough to make up your mind.

    Dawkins, unlike me, did his homework. He shouldn’t give the impression of having done otherwise.

  11. #11 Caledonian
    December 27, 2006

    Say you wanted to write a book on a topic that you think is bunk, like astrology or homeopathy. Are you telling me that you wouldn’t do at least a little research? Wouldn’t you at least look at, say, the Skeptic’s Dictionary?

    I would most certainly do research. The research wouldn’t need to consist of reading other debunkings of the topic, though – likely I would just research the woo claims themselves, then find references for whatever evidence I would use to demonstrate the invalidity of those claims.

    No one needs to research philosophy in order to show the invalidity of religious faith. It’s obvious to any thinking mind.

  12. #12 Tyler DiPietro
    December 27, 2006

    J.J. Ramsey,

    Say you wanted to write a book on a topic that you think is bunk, like astrology or homeopathy. Are you telling me that you wouldn’t do at least a little research? Wouldn’t you at least look at, say, the Skeptic’s Dictionary?

    There is a large space of difference between “not doing research” and “not being a specialist”. Dawkins does spend a considerable amount of time on what you could call “the big-uns” of theistic apologetics. But it’s a book aimed at popular audiences, so naturally it is not the be all, end all. Nor should Dawkins have attempted such a feat. If you wish to find out why, you can print out every page of writing wasted on theology and drop it on some kid’s back. May be going a bit far, but at least someone who makes wheelchairs will have work. ;)

    If one thinks that there is some argument which Dawkins doesn’t adequately address, then they are free to point it out. I see him accused of “hand-waving” legitimate concerns away all the time, but I happen to find it hard to believe that a sufficiently clever theist could not lay such an argument out in syllogistic form rather than appealing to some quasi-mystical “problem”.

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    December 27, 2006

    Tyler DiPietro: There is a large space of difference between “not doing research” and “not being a specialist”.

    But no one is asking Dawkins to be a specialist. Not even Eagleton’s review, which was apparently the original target of the Courtier’s Reply, judging by some of the parallels between the two, demands that. At this point, no one is even claiming that Dawkins hasn’t done the research.

    Lynch’s complaint is pretty clear. The implication of Dawkins’ glib stock reply, regardless of its truth, is that he is so contemptuous of his subject that he feels no need to study it. If he is really trying to promote rationalism and not just atheism, this is an incredibly bad message to convey, even if he conveys it by accident and doesn’t by the message himself. (Judging from Caledonian’s above post, at least one person has taken this unintentional message to heart.)

    Dawkins has done a decent if not stellar job of sketching out the various arguments for God, and his stock reply sells himself short and promotes a cavalier attitude that I doubt he himself would brook if he thought about it.

  14. #14 Tyler DiPietro
    December 27, 2006

    J.J. Ramsey,

    Lynch’s complaint is pretty clear. The implication of Dawkins’ glib stock reply, regardless of its truth, is that he is so contemptuous of his subject that he feels no need to study it.

    Whether it is glib or not is irrelevant. I’m always a bit contemptuous myself of people who equate rambling prose with incisive argumentation. Our (meaning Mine, Jason and Myer’s) description of the stock reply may be glib, but it is nonetheless accurate. Just look at the first paragraph of Terry Eagleton’s review:

    “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they donít believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.”

    And here is H. Allen Orr:

    “The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).”

    “The Courtier’s Reply” isn’t simply a strawman. Either Dawkins did a good job sketching out arguments for the existence of God or he did not. His opponents can’t have it both ways.

  15. #15 Caledonian
    December 27, 2006

    The implication of Dawkins’ glib stock reply, regardless of its truth, is that he is so contemptuous of his subject that he feels no need to study it.

    That is utterly ridiculous. I don’t need to study astrological methodology in detail in order to know that it’s bunk. A cursory examiniation is sufficient. Do I need to be an expert in biology before I conclude that cockatrices, griffins, and manticores aren’t real? Do I need a complete understanding of the distinctions between Eastern and Western dragons and their respective cultural importance before concluding that they’re mythical? Of course not.

    That “regardless of its truth” is telling. You don’t seem to actually care what the implications of Dawkins’ statements are, as long as they can be spun in a negative light.

  16. #16 SmellyTerror
    December 27, 2006

    (Crossposted, since I’m not sure where the discussion is, now. Sorry!)

    How can you have missed the point so entirely, John?

    The analogy you gave in the OP is not correct. You have a critic of evolution refusing to read the learned books of evolutionary biology – but that’s not the step that Dawkins is fighting on. It’s not what the argument is about.

    Rather, imagine that the critic of evolution is saying “you have no reason to believe there is any such thing as evolution”. Now, if a scientist came along and said “sure, but look at all this great writing we’ve done about it” – well, that would be a wholly unconvincing reply, wouldn’t it? If the only evidence to support the concept of evolution was the deep and impressive conversations we could have about it, then I would hope it would have utterly zero credibility in science, and it would be entirely valid to say so.

    This is *not* about the resultant body of work, however vast and impressive. This is about first principles.

    You can’t defend the existence of god with a body of work that pre-supposes the existence of god, any more than body of work surrounding the theory of evolution is, on its own, a substitute for the observational evidence that is the true underpinning of the science. Imagine evolution had absolutely no experimental or observational evidence, and scientists tried to defend it by pointing to the very big books they’d written on it.

    That’s the argument that’s being fought, here.

  17. #17 Caledonian
    December 27, 2006

    That’s not quite true, SmellyTerror – descent with modification follows logically from a few basic premises, and those premises require only a very rudimentary knowledge of biology to recognize as true. Once it’s noted that organisms vary and that those variations are at least partly heritable, pure logic is sufficient to derive basic evolutionary theory.

    No one has ever managed to produce a viable logical demonstration of the existence of any deity. At best, there are discussions of a Spinozan ‘god’ that is semantically indistinguishable from the concept of ‘nature’ or ‘existence’.

  18. #18 SmellyTerror
    December 27, 2006

    Caledonian: uh, yes? That’s my point. Evolutionary theory requires “knowledge of biology” and that it has been “noted that organisms vary”. There are observational underpinnings that permit the greater body of work to be produced, and it is this that justifies the body of work. The textbooks cannot be used to substitute for the required observations if those observations did not exist.

    Dawkins is attacking the underpinnings of theology. Not the body of work built on top of it, but the fundamental reasoning. In this context it is entirely valid to ignore the complex theology that comes from the basic premise, becuase he’s trying to show that the basic premise itself is flawed.

    If I attacked evolution, you couldn’t defend it by saying pointing out how deep and complex the textbooks are. You defend it by pointing to the evidence.

  19. #19 Jon H
    December 28, 2006

    J. J. Ramsey writes: “The implication of Dawkins’ glib stock reply, regardless of its truth, is that he is so contemptuous of his subject that he feels no need to study it.”

    Does one really need to study the forms, histories, and theories of operation of occult rituals before one can declare that they’re bunk?

    No, one does not. You can safely make that determination without ever cracking a volume of Alesteir Crowley or John Dee or some late-medieval forger selling tomes by “Doctor Faustus”.

    Yes, there’s a lot of deeply-thought theological writing in existence, and to the extent theologians have stopped arguing over points, it stands up pretty well. But to a great extent, those theological arguments are equivalent to books like “The Science of Discworld” or “The Science of Star Trek”. They are entirely consistent and reasonable when considered within their millieu – ie, when their premises are taken to be true.

  20. #20 Robert O'Brien
    December 28, 2006

    No one needs to research philosophy in order to show the invalidity of religious faith. It’s obvious to any thinking mind.

    Nice proof surrogate, Caleduncian.

  21. #21 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Tyler DiPietro: “‘The Courtier’s Reply’ isn’t simply a strawman. Either Dawkins did a good job sketching out arguments for the existence of God or he did not. His opponents can’t have it both ways.”

    His opponents aren’t having it both ways. If we are talking Eagleton and Orr, they are flat out saying that he did not do a good job sketching out arguments for the existence of God or he did not. Having read the book, I’d mostly disagree, partly because of Courtier’s Reply stuff and partly because they just flat out misrepresented him. In the case of Orr, it’s mostly an issue of misrepresentation.

    In the case of Lynch, he is simply saying that Dawkins is expressing an inexcusably cavalier attitude towards researching the opposition (though he obviously thinks that Dawkins hasn’t done a fair job, and I would like to know why myself).

    Jon H: “Does one really need to study the forms, histories, and theories of operation of occult rituals before one can declare that they’re bunk?”

    If you are simply making up your own mind privately, a cursory look is OK, provided you already have a good general idea of the kinds of things that are bunk and why they are bunk (urban legends, magical thinking, etc.).

    If you are writing a book on the matter, then damn straight you need to study. At the very least, it establishes credibility, and it also means that you get to double-check your arguments and make sure you attack what you think you are attacking.

  22. #22 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Me: “His opponents aren’t having it both ways. If we are talking Eagleton and Orr, they are flat out saying that he did not do a good job sketching out arguments for the existence of God or he did not.”

    Arrgh. Another cut-and-paste error. The last four words “or he did not” should be excised.

  23. #23 Michael Kremer
    December 28, 2006

    A lot of people in a lot of these debates end up saying things like:

    “No one needs to research philosophy in order to show the invalidity of religious faith. It’s obvious to any thinking mind.”

    “Does one really need to study the forms, histories, and theories of operation of occult rituals before one can declare that they’re bunk?

    No, one does not.”

    Etc. This does, however, lead one to wonder why it was necessary to write a several-hundred-page book on religion, rather than a 300 word op-ed piece.

  24. #24 Michael Kremer
    December 28, 2006

    I think the Courtier’s reply misses the point, which is that Dawkins engages in specific criticisms which often misrepresent what religious believers in fact believe.

    I strongly recommend the post by Christopher Heard on the thread on John Lynch’s page. Heard’s conclusion is this: “If he’s going to attack specific dogmas, though, he should show that he actually understands what the proponents of those dogmas mean when they affirm and attempt to explain those dogmas.” And he backs it up with specific examples of Dawkins’s failings in this regard.

  25. #25 Caledonian
    December 28, 2006

    Those dogmas often prove his point. Christians traditionally claim that they’re monotheistic and that their god is composed of a trinity – and the traditional explanation for this inconsistency is that it’s a ‘mystery’.

    This is not only a failure to understand the definition of ‘mystery’, it’s utter nonsense.

  26. #26 Michael Kremer
    December 28, 2006

    Caledonian:

    Sed contra: Your answer proves Heard’s point. (And you might want to take note that Heard specifically mentions Dawkins’s breezy dismissal of Trinitarian doctrines as an example demonstrating his point.)

    First, it is silly to accuse theologians of misunderstanding the definition of “mystery.” According to the OED, *one of the definitions of “mystery”* is “a religious truth known only through divine revelation; usually a doctrine of the faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving.” What is the definition of “mystery” that you think is being misunderstood? Are you unaware of the origin of the English word from the Greek word “mysterion” (as it occurs, among other places, in the New Testament) which itself had multiple meanings, including the theological meaning?

    Second, the fact that the Trinity is a mystery has hardly prevented theologians from attempting to understand it — even if they must always admit that all attempts to understand it must remain partial and incomplete (in accordance with the definition of “mystery” I just cited). Start with Augustine, De Trinitate, or even earlier, and move forward.

    Third, to say that the Trinity is a mystery is not to admit that it is contradictory or an inconsistency. “One God in three persons” is not polytheism, it is simply monotheism. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three Gods. This should be clear from even a cursory study of theology.

  27. #27 Friend Fruit
    December 28, 2006

    Lynch seems insistent that Philosophy of Religion (PoR) is not to be confused with theology, and is to be taken seriously. Fine, but what are the major finding of PoR? It’s been a conversation going on for about 2.5 millenia that is fascinating (to some); surely there must be some agreed upon results of the field? Compare this to my own field of molecular biology, which has been around maybe half a century, and there are quite a number of clear findings that one could be called a crackpot for disagreeing with (genetic code, nucleotide base pairing as the physical basis of heredity, proteins and RNA as catalysts, polypeptide targetting, etc etc etc). Has PoR produced any rational arguments for the existence of god(s) which are considered to be convincing by even a majority of the field? Perhaps there have been good attempts, and fascinating contributions, but the bottom line answer is: NO. So then, how many failed arguments and their refutations was Dawkins expected to reproduce in order to be take seriously?

  28. #28 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Friend Fruit: “Has PoR produced any rational arguments for the existence of god(s) which are considered to be convincing by even a majority of the field?”

    That second question shows your ignorance about PoR. Considering that Hume was one of the philosophers of religion mentioned, it is rather odd that you expect PoR to necessarily provide arguments for the existence of god(s).

  29. #29 Friend Fruit
    December 28, 2006

    That second question shows your ignorance about PoR. Considering that Hume was one of the philosophers of religion mentioned, it is rather odd that you expect PoR to necessarily provide arguments for the existence of god(s).

    I do not follow. If Dawkins had missed any arguments against the existence of god(s), certainly this would not be held against him.

    .
    I read Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion just recently. He rather roundly dismissed the ontological and cosmological arguments. His most skeptical character, Philo, admitted to be somewhat persuaded by the argument from design. It is made clear from the dialogue that the extinction of species and the fossil record had yet to be uncovered; and of course this was before Darwin had put forward his theory for natural selection, which Dawkins properly argues is fatal to the biological argument from design.

  30. #30 tomrob
    December 28, 2006

    None of the critics who accuse Dawkins of failing to engage the theological state-of-the-art have ever explained what propositions/arguments Dawkins has ignored and why that is fatal to his argument. Come on folks, cough it up!

  31. #31 Friend Fruit
    December 28, 2006

    None of the critics who accuse Dawkins of failing to engage the theological state-of-the-art have ever explained what propositions/arguments Dawkins has ignored and why that is fatal to his argument. Come on folks, cough it up!

    I’ve been asking for that pretty regularly, with no meaningful response. The closest I have come is John Lynch throwing a bunch of names at me:

    Secondly, go to your local university library and look at the books on PoR. Read what they are about. You’ll see names like Kant, Kierkegaard, Hume, Nietzsche, all of whom get scant (if any) mention by Dawkins.

    So apparently, his argument is, “Kierkegard, therefore God exists.” I believe that is a category error. Or perhaps he is criticising Dawkins for not having written a history of PoR. Lynch grows progressively more irate, but continues not to provide the beef.

  32. #32 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Friend Fruit: “I do not follow….

    “I read Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion just recently. He rather roundly dismissed the ontological and cosmological arguments.”

    The problem is that you were confusing philosophers of religion with partisans for religion. It’s a small mistake, but it shows that you weren’t paying attention.

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Friend Fruit: So apparently, his [Lynch's] argument is, “Kierkegard, therefore God exists.”

    Your ignorance is breathtaking. Lynch himself wrote:

    “I’d like to make it perfectly clear where I stand. I am situated at milestone #6 of Dawkin’s typology (p. 51 of TGD). I agree that ‘I cannot know for certain but I think that God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there’ but disagree whether that makes me a ‘De Facto atheist’ or an agnostic, I also have no time for NOMA.]”

    This is the guy you think is trying to argue for God?

  34. #34 Friend Fruit
    December 28, 2006

    Your ignorance is breathtaking.

    I asked for an argument. I was given a name. Do you understand the difference? I do not regard the ability to distinguish between a name and an argument as “ignorance.”

  35. #35 Friend Fruit
    December 28, 2006

    The problem is that you were confusing philosophers of religion with partisans for religion. It’s a small mistake, but it shows that you weren’t paying attention.

    I ask once again, more carefully worded for you: if the charge is that Dawkins has failed to engage the substance of the opposition, why would he be criticised for overlooking an argument on his own side?

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Friend Fruit: “I asked for an argument. I was given a name. Do you understand the difference?”

    Yes. The name is what would lead to an author who would give you an argument that would be a bit long for a blog post.

    Friend Fruit: “if the charge is that Dawkins has failed to engage the substance of the opposition, why would he be criticised for overlooking an argument on his own side?”

    Because part of engaging the substance of the opposition is knowing what others on your side have said. This way, you don’t reinvent the wheel.

    Now to be fair to Dawkins, his treatment of the classical arguments for God seems to be OK. On the other hand, when it came to an argument in which I had some knowledge, the Argument from Scripture, I found it a bit strewy (and it had a couple red flags to boot), so it wouldn’t surprise me if Lynch had found some issues in the arguments on the topics with which he was familiar.

  37. #37 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 28, 2006

    Jason:
    Actually, “Angelology” has revived as a topic in theological publication in the past few decades. Whether or not it has content, it is refereed publication, so Dawkins is indeed taking the easy way out, and not engaging the academic topic.

    See, for instance:

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

    http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1521&letter=A

    http://www.theology.edu/theology/angel.htm

    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/thisthat.html#Angels

    MarkP: specifically, Ramanujan claimed that some of his equations were given to him by The Goddess, meaning the local goddess of his remote rural Indian village and its environs. Thus, he did not supply proofs. In some cases, his results were not formally proven for several decades, by others, not goddess-friendly. I’m fascinated by his suggestion that space is infinitely divisible, with aleph-null particles of quantized space. But he argued that the human kind (and soul) was of a higher order of infinity, and thus infinmitely many thoughts could be squeezed between two infinitesimally separated places.

    Similarly, late in life the great master of infinity, Cantor, began making claims, without proof, saying that God had told him.

  38. #38 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 28, 2006

    Jason:

    was my previous submission filtered out because it had 4 URLs embedded?

    I iterate, with the links removed, and the Cantor and Ramanujan things in the proper order:

    Jason:

    Actually, “Angelology” has revived as a topic in theological publication in the past few decades.
    Whether or not it has content, it is refereed publication, so Dawkins is indeed taking the easy way out, and not engaging the academic topic.

    See, for instance:

    [links removed]

    MarkP: specifically, Ramanujan claimed that some of his equations were given to him by The Goddess, meaning the local goddess of his remote rural Indian village and its environs. Thus, he did not supply proofs. In some cases, his results were not formally proven for several decades, by others, not goddess-friendly.

    Similarly, late in life the great master of infinity, Cantor, began making claims, without proof, saying that God had told him. I’m fascinated by his suggestion that space is infinitely divisible, with aleph-null particles of quantized space. But he argued that the human mind (and soul) was of a higher order of infinity, and thus infinitely many thoughts could be squeezed between two infinitesimally separated places.

    Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post | December 28, 2006 01:53PM

    Postscript: my first degree in Math was from Caltech. I’ve been an adjunct professor of Math. I’m in touch with some Darthmouth folks. This was not just drive-by blogging; you and I share some background and interests.

  39. #39 Rohan
    December 28, 2006

    I’m rather late to this debate but it has made good reading I have to say.

    I am landing firmly on the side of Caldonian and PZ Myers.

    The reason that Dawkins has not included an extensive debate on Theology is because it is entirely irrelevant to his cause. Dawkins is a scientist and as such thrives on proofs, evidence and tangibles. Theology and it’s philosophical offshoots assume the basic premise that you believe in God or Gods. What use is philosophising on the nature of a God for which there is no evidence?.

    Dawkins does all that is required for rational debate. He examines the ‘evidence’ provided by Christian religion (St. Thomas of Aquinas, the Bible) etc and then dismatles them brutally and wittily.

    I do find it astonishing that people will have long and intelligent technical debates on this sort of subject all the while believing in some supernatural ‘creator’, or a man who walked on water or a celestial place with 72 virgins, or a man allegedly prepared to murder his own son to amuse this comic invisible Creator.

    Michael Kremer:

    I am afraid that I was brought up a Christian (sadly) and have read the bible cover to cover ad nauseam. There is nothing clear or simple whatsoever about the Trinity.

    One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is not a phrase that makes sense. One cannot be three, even the most cursory study of existence should clarify that.

    The existence of the Trinity seems to be there to deliberately ensnare the weak minded into believing that they have tapped into a mysterious creed that is beyond their power of logic. It is nonsense and nothing more.

  40. #40 Koray
    December 28, 2006

    I admit I am ignorant of theology. But, how much muslim theology does one have to read before dismissing islam?

    Whether or not a God exists is not a game that just academics and theologists play. The claim typically fits in one book written for the layman.

  41. #41 MarkP
    December 28, 2006

    Yes, Ramanujan was a devoit Hindu. He also made mistakes on occasion, so even then the argument of divine influence melts.

  42. #42 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Koray: “I admit I am ignorant of theology. But, how much muslim theology does one have to read before dismissing islam?”

    Again, it depends. If your dismissal hinges on concerns that don’t have much to do with the finer points of Islam, a cursory look will do. However, if you are going to go ahead and criticize Islamic theology, then you had better study it.

  43. #43 Caledonian
    December 28, 2006

    However, if you are going to go ahead and criticize Islamic theology, then you had better study it.

    On the contrary, if you’re going to criticize Islamic theology because it is not derived from the study of existent phenomena, we need study the faith only as much as it takes to demonstrate that Islam was likely made up by human beings and its complex mythologies are human creations. Precise details of the doctrines are irrelevant to the question of whether it’s a fantasy.

    If I want to criticize the literary merits of Harry Potter fanfic, I need to actually read the fanfic in question. If I want to criticize the idea that the writings are a historical documentary, I don’t even need to read them if I can demonstrate that Harry Potter is fiction without them.

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Me: “If your dismissal hinges on concerns that don’t have much to do with the finer points of Islam, a cursory look will do. However, if you are going to go ahead and criticize Islamic theology, then you had better study it.”

    Caledonian: “On the contrary, if you’re going to criticize Islamic theology because it is not derived from the study of existent phenomena, we need study the faith only as much as it takes to demonstrate that Islam was likely made up by human beings and its complex mythologies are human creations.”

    I think there is an ambiguity here. When I was mentioning Islamic theology, I mentioned it in contrast to “concerns that don’t have much to do with the finer points of Islam,” so at the point where one is talking about Islamic theology in this case, one is getting into the territory of, to borrow your analogy, “the literary merits of Harry Potter fanfic.” Now if you want to define Islamic theology more broadly than I did, that’s reasonable, and in that case, you are correct.

    Perhaps a better way to say it would be that if you are only attacking whether Islam is true, then deep details of Islamic dogma are not needed. If, however, one is going to attack Islamic dogma itself (much as Dawkins attacked Christian dogma itself when he attacked the Trinity), then, yes, one needs to study the dogma.

  45. #45 Caledonian
    December 28, 2006

    The dogma on the Trinity is that it’s beyond human understanding and the doctrine was given directly by God.

    That’s stupid. It’s not only stupid in the obvious senses, but stupid on a variety of subtle and arcane levels. One doesn’t have to read the wide spectrum of stupid writings trying to rationalize the madness to recognize it as stupid.

  46. #46 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Caledonian: “One doesn’t have to read the wide spectrum of stupid writings [on the Trinity] trying to rationalize the madness to recognize it as stupid.”

    If neither you nor Dawkins need to read that wide spectrum, then either of you should already be able to explain why the Trinity is indeed stupid. One thing I’ve noticed is that neither you nor him had actually offered an explanation, only bald assertion and mockery. Dawkins, at least, is an intelligent man, and if refuting the Trinity was really that simple, he should have done it in TGB. The lack here is telling. I’m sorry, but the fact that Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Ridicule is the only weapon against unintelligible propositions,” doesn’t make it true. A horse laugh is only worth ten thousand syllogisms if you can offer the syllogisms if challenged.

  47. #47 holland
    December 28, 2006

    J.J.Ramsey,

    You’re a very obtuse individual.

    “If neither you nor Dawkins need to read that wide spectrum, then either of you should already be able to explain why the Trinity is indeed stupid.”

    It’s stupid because there’s no good reason to believe the God of Christianity exists in the first place, regardless of whether he is hypothesized to be Unitarian or Trinitarian in nature.

    “if refuting the Trinity was really that simple, he should have done it in TGB.”

    No, he shouldn’t. It would be like “refuting” the Trinity of the Tooth Fairy.

  48. #48 Leni
    December 29, 2006

    JJ Wrote:

    One thing I’ve noticed is that neither you nor him had actually offered an explanation, only bald assertion and mockery.

    Oh, you are probably going to wish you hadn’t said that :)

    I don’t really think Caledonian needs any help here, but I’d like to make a few observations.

    First, I suspect that our acclimation to the Jesus story sometimes prevents us from noticing its absurdity. We’ve just grown used to the story about a man born from a virgin impregnated by an incorporeal deity who wishes to sacrifice an innocent human being… For the sole purpose of absolving humanity of sins we still must pay for anyway!

    It is stupid. Patently, trivially, and immediately stupid. I don’t need to acquaint myself with anything more specific than my own culture to know that. It’s ubiquitous in our culture. I need not do anything special to seek out exposure to it.

    Similarily, the absurdity of the trinity follows directly from the absurdity of its components. Dawkins addresses another component (God) sufficiently. We really only need to address one though.

    Surely none of this is new to you. You must, at some point, have contemplated why virgin births and sacrificing an innocent man to appease an angry god is ridiculous. It is, after all, why one needs “faith”.

  49. #49 SmellyTerror
    December 29, 2006

    To use the Courtier’s Reply: Dawkins, after claiming that the Emperor has no clothes, then goes on to discuss the foolishness of lace and ruffles, and the inconsistency of wearing plaid with stripes. It is apparent to all and sundry that his grasp of Imperial fashion is pretty damn poor, and he’s called out on it.

    To which he responds: “Well, he’s got no clothes anyway, so it doesn’t matter”.

    Does he look a little foolish? Yes. But the main argument stands.

  50. #50 J. J. Ramsey
    December 29, 2006

    Leni: “I suspect that our acclimation to the Jesus story sometimes prevents us from noticing its absurdity. We’ve just grown used to the story about a man born from a virgin impregnated by an incorporeal deity who wishes to sacrifice an innocent human being… For the sole purpose of absolving humanity of sins we still must pay for anyway!”

    Let’s take it in pieces. We have two kinds of alleged absurdities. First, you have the supernatural stuff, such as the virgin birth and the incorporeal deity. Second, you have the atonement.

    In the first case, you are trying to say that you “don’t need to acquaint myself with anything more specific than my own culture to know that” miracles are absurd. I call BS. Unless your own culture acquaints you with, say, arguments like Hume’s, this cannot be true. I highly doubt that you were brought up noticing that human testimony is more reliable on some matters than others. I highly doubt that your culture pointed out that there is an inverse relationship between how spectacular a report of a miracle is and how verifiable it is. I have noticed that many people who rail at the absurdity of miracles simply beg the question on miracles or say vaguely that science rules them out.

    In the second case, I would agree that “sacrifice an innocent human being… [f]or the sole purpose of absolving humanity of sins we still must pay for anyway” is barbaric and unjust. I would not necessarily agree that this is what the New Testament describes, simply because it isn’t that clear or even coherent on this point. Evangelical Protestants buy into a theology similar to the one that you describe, while the Eastern Orthodox deride it as a Western heresy. Now Dawkins could argue that while the New Testament is less than clear, it does, contrary to the Eastern Orthodox’s wishes, provide enough support for that barbaric view to have planted itself in the minds of Christians, and could even possibly argue that this view can cause and has caused plenty of damage. Alternatively, he could sidestep the whole matter, and point out a less ambiguous moral problem in the New Testament.

    Leni: “Surely none of this is new to you.”

    Obviously not. However, I don’t trust “it’s obviously ridiculous” as an answer. Bear in mind that creationists use ridicule, too. It is a dangerous weapon, one that can be used both to attack and reinforce bad ideas.

  51. #51 J. J. Ramsey
    December 29, 2006

    Me: “If neither you nor Dawkins need to read that wide spectrum, then either of you should already be able to explain why the Trinity is indeed stupid.”

    holland: “It’s stupid because there’s no good reason to believe the God of Christianity exists in the first place, regardless of whether he is hypothesized to be Unitarian or Trinitarian in nature.”

    To borrow from some of SmellyTerror’s take on the Courtier’s Reply, this is like saying it’s stupid for the emperor to wear plaid with stripes because the emperor is naked.

  52. #52 Caledonian
    December 29, 2006

    In a mystery, there are facts which we need to find an explanation for. There’s the body of Mr. Body – who killed him, with what, and where? Or perhaps our observations are in error – Mr. Body’s just playing dead to avoid being murdered.

    With the doctrine of the Trinity, we have no facts – only an assertion. Confronted with a reality that doesn’t fit into our understanding, we can validly conclude that our understanding is deficient. Confronted with an assertion for which there is no proof and can be no proof and that is utterly incompatible with language and meaning, we can only conclude that the assertion is defective.

    And SmellyTerror has it all wrong. There’s ample reason to believe the Emperor has no clothes, and insufficient evidence to conclude that he does. Whether he does or not, the properties supposedly possessed by the alleged clothes are logically incoherent. The descriptions and claims about the clothes are impossible whether the clothes exist or not, and thus if the clothes are real the descriptions are deeply inaccurate at best or even outright wrong.

    Theism is the premise that the Emperor isn’t naked. Actual, specific religions are the descriptions of his wardrobe. By pointing out the ludicrousness of the descriptions, Dawkins makes it clear that adopting the idea of the clothed Emperor already involves discarding reason and logic – this is why the descriptions are so out-of-whack.

    I must say, the fervent attacks from the theists (poorly disguised as atheists or not) really help to make that point clear, as well.

  53. #53 Michael Kremer
    December 29, 2006

    Rohan: It is absurd to say that one X can be three X’s. But it is not absurd to say that one X can be several Y’s. We can say that one nation is fifty states.

    “One God in three persons” is not “One God in three Gods.” Of course, I have only given an analogy to understand the Trinity, and this analogy is imperfect: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not stand to God as the states do to the Union. One difficulty that stands in the way of such a reading of the Trinity is the doctrine of divine simplicity. It is possible to *argue* that there are insurmountable logical difficulties here — see Christopher Hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God: An Investigation in Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology (Cornell U Press, 1990) — but that takes really getting your hands dirty with the theology. And of course, once you do that, there is the possibility of reasoned disagreement with you.

  54. #54 Michael Kremer
    December 29, 2006

    Caledonian:

    You take a word, “mystery,” that has had multiple meanings for centuries. You pick one of the meanings that you like, and when you find other people using the word in one of its other meanings, you complain that they don’t understand the word. This is like saying that I haven’t understood the word “green” when I describe a rookie basketball player as “green” — it’s as if you replied, “no he isn’t green, look at the color of his skin.”

  55. #55 Caledonian
    December 29, 2006

    Not at all, Kremer. The definition of ‘mystery’ being used in theology has the same definition as the definition of ‘nonsense’ used outside theology.

  56. #56 Leni
    December 29, 2006

    JJ Ramsey wrote:

    Let’s take it in pieces. We have two kinds of alleged absurdities.

    No, no we don’t. There is only one kind of absurdity: the absurd kind. First you want to talk about the Trinity and when we explain that that’s absurd you switch to atonement?

    This is why Dawkins doesn’t bother. Because it’s a rabbit hole of shifting goalposts and meaningless absurdities.

    Why are you trying to parse “kinds” of bullshit anyway? Why bother?

    I can see why you’d want to distance yourself from the inarguably stupid virgin birth, but make no mistake: crap is crap. I don’t care about the various kinds of it because I don’t need to.

    First, you have the supernatural stuff, such as the virgin birth and the incorporeal deity. Second, you have the atonement.

    See, this just totally misses the point. I do not need to delve into your religious theories to know that the bedrock on which they rest is crap. Any more than I need to indulge the crank theories of a schizophrenic to know that they are false.

    I’m not talking about atonement and I can’t for the life of me imagine why you are. Perhaps it is because in your mind it is more believable than virgin births and magic, talking, invisisble bush-burners. It is presumably territory on which you feel safe and which you take for granted as somehow different. Well, it isn’t.

    Your theories about atonement are not distinguishable from other silly beliefs just because you wish them to be. They aren’t better arguments that your opponents are just overlooking, they are window dressings. What meaning does atonement have if I don’t accept that Jesus is the son of God? Atone what with whom where for what reason? It’s a useless concept if you don’t buy the magic Jesus theory in the first place.

    Now Dawkins could argue that while the New Testament is less than clear, it does, contrary to the Eastern Orthodox’s wishes, provide enough support for that barbaric view to have planted itself in the minds of Christians, and could even possibly argue that this view can cause and has caused plenty of damage. Alternatively, he could sidestep the whole matter, and point out a less ambiguous moral problem in the New Testament.

    JJ, I could not care less what you or the Eastern Orthodox church thinks about the New Testament. The point is, and I think Dawkins would agree, that it’s all bullshit so it really doesn’t matter what the intracasies are. The fact that you think some absurd beliefs are slightly less absurd than others is irrelevant.

  57. #57 Michael Kremer
    December 29, 2006

    Caledonian:

    I posted above the definition of “mystery” used in theology, from the OED. And that is not the same as the definition of nonsense. You may claim it is itself nonsense until you’re blue in the face, but that is not an argument.

    I have said this before: I don’t deny that it is possible to show something to be nonsensical. But that takes work. A simple declaration of nonsense won’t convince anyone but yourself and those who share your pre-conceived opinions.

  58. #58 Friend Fruit
    December 29, 2006

    Yes. The name is what would lead to an author who would give you an argument that would be a bit long for a blog post.

    Two can play at this game. Smythe. There, I’ve given you a name. That is at least as good as an argument. Here’s another: Johnson. There. Consider yourself irretrievably refuted.

  59. #59 Friend Fruit
    December 29, 2006

    was my previous submission filtered out because it had 4 URLs embedded?

    That is most likely the case. Various of the ScienceBlogs have the parameters set differently. The post would have gone into a “Held for approval” queue somewhere, so it might appear when Jason gets around to it. At some of the blogs, the authors seem unaware or unattentive of these queues, so posts that get help up never appear.

  60. #60 J. J. Ramsey
    December 29, 2006

    Leni: “First you want to talk about the Trinity and when we explain that that’s absurd you switch to atonement? … I’m not talking about atonement and I can’t for the life of me imagine why you are.”

    What?! You are the one who switched the subject from the Trinity to the virgin birth and the atonement. How you can even say, “I’m not talking about atonement,” when you were the one wrote about, “an incorporeal deity who wishes to sacrifice an innocent human being… For the sole purpose of absolving humanity of sins we still must pay for anyway” Guess what? You just described your take on the atonement. The fact that you didn’t even recognize this is evidence against this “We don’t need to read up about religion to criticize it” idea. You have to at least read enough to know the terminology being used, and clearly you didn’t do that much. Even Dawkins did better than that (TGD, p. 252).

    Leni: “Why are you trying to parse ‘kinds’ of bullshit anyway?”

    Things may be bullshit for different reasons, and if one is going to say that something is bull, one needs to know why it’s bull.

    Leni: “Perhaps it is because in your mind it [atonement] is more believable than virgin births and magic, talking, invisisble bush-burners. It is presumably territory on which you feel safe and which you take for granted as somehow different.”

    I have no idea where you got the idea that I was praising the atonement. I was pointing out that if you are, as Dawkins does, using the atonement as an example of absurd moral dubiousness in the New Testament (NT), then you had better make sure that your example isn’t a strawman parody of what the New Testament says. The Eastern Orthodox come into play because they have a much different take on what the NT says about atonement, which is a possible sign (though not a certain one) that the understanding that you and Dawkins have of the NT is incorrect.

    If you call something BS, you have to be able to give a reason why it is BS. That is part of being a rationalist.

    Friend Fruit: “Two can play at this game. Smythe. There, I’ve given you a name. That is at least as good as an argument. Here’s another: Johnson. There. Consider yourself irretrievably refuted.”

    This is supposed to be a response to my saying, “The name is what would lead to an author who would give you an argument that would be a bit long for a blog post”? Neither of the names that you gave me are leads to an author’s arguments. That cannot be said for the names that John Lynch gave you.

  61. #61 Caledonian
    December 29, 2006

    One god in three persons? Why not three gods in one person?

    Why not two-and-a-half gods in one person, or six gods in four-and-two-thirds people? Pi deities in seven-minus-the-square-root-of-two people?

    In reality, when we find that the world does not behave in the ways our words allow, we change the words that we used to describe that world. In religion, we* declare the meaningless juxtaposition of incompatible terms to be a “mystery”.

    *By ‘we’, I mean of course ‘you’. Not you, or you – you, there in the back.

  62. #62 Friend Fruit
    December 29, 2006

    This is supposed to be a response to my saying, “The name is what would lead to an author who would give you an argument that would be a bit long for a blog post”? Neither of the names that you gave me are leads to an author’s arguments. That cannot be said for the names that John Lynch gave you.

    I happen to know that none of the persons named has ever put forward a rational argument for the existence of God(s) that is considered to be valid and convincing. In fact no one has. John Lynch knows this as well. If you don’t know it, then you are the only party involved who is ignorant. This is the last argument you will get from me. From now on it’s just names. Whether the names are actually relevant or just random will be for you to investigate and find out. Or you could just interpret them to mean, “**** off,” because i am growing very tired of your obtuseness.

  63. #63 Robert O'Brien
    December 29, 2006

    Friend Fruit Loop wrote:

    I happen to know that none of the persons named has ever put forward a rational argument for the existence of God(s) that is considered to be valid and convincing. In fact no one has.

    Bearing your testimony is quaint but do not expect it to convince anyone.

  64. #64 Robert O'Brien
    December 29, 2006

    One god in three persons? Why not three gods in one person?

    Why not two-and-a-half gods in one person, or six gods in four-and-two-thirds people? Pi deities in seven-minus-the-square-root-of-two people?

    In reality, when we find that the world does not behave in the ways our words allow, we change the words that we used to describe that world. In religion, we* declare the meaningless juxtaposition of incompatible terms to be a “mystery”.

    Caleduncian continues to display his ignorance of Attic Greek philosophical terms, I see.

  65. #65 J. J. Ramsey
    December 29, 2006

    Friend Fruit: “I happen to know that none of the persons named has ever put forward a rational argument for the existence of God(s) that is considered to be valid and convincing.”

    I don’t think that Lynch expected you to, especially since some of the names he mentioned, such as Hume and Kant, argued against some of the arguments for God. He did, however, expect you to learn not to be so quick to trivialize.

    BTW, Caledonian, I did not see an argument in what I guess was an attempted refuting of the Trinity. Snide questions and snarky assertions, yes, but that’s nothing a creationist couldn’t do.

  66. #66 holland
    December 29, 2006

    J.J. Ramsey,

    To borrow from some of SmellyTerror’s take on the Courtier’s Reply, this is like saying it’s stupid for the emperor to wear plaid with stripes because the emperor is naked.

    No, it’s like saying that it’s stupid to debate whether the emperor is wearing plaid stripes rather than pink polka dots (i.e., whether God’s nature is Trinitarian or Unitarian) when there’s no good reason to think the emperor is wearing any clothes at all (i.e., no good reason to think God exists in the first place).

    This isn’t difficult to understand. I can only conclude that your persistent failure to understand it is the result of wilfull obtuseness.

  67. #67 Koray
    December 29, 2006

    JJ Ramsey wrote:

    Again, it depends. If your dismissal hinges on concerns that don’t have much to do with the finer points of Islam, a cursory look will do. However, if you are going to go ahead and criticize Islamic theology, then you had better study it.

    I don’t know whether Dawkins criticized _particulars_ of xtian/islamic theology in The God Delusion (I haven’t read it).

    John M Lynch wrote:

    One assumes that Dawkins read the primary texts (“scriptures”) of the monotheistic religions he is critiquing. One would hope that he engaged with the “secondary literature” of theological writings which attempt to interpret and justify these texts.

    Why does he hope? If the primary text (actually, I would call it “the only text”) is wrong, why would you read the “secondary” text? Do you have to follow a math proof that is based on false theorems?

    Why don’t I write a “secondary” book on Dawkins’ book so that everybody who needs to address Dawkins’ book has to read piles of my crap first?

  68. #68 Robert O'Brien
    December 29, 2006

    (i.e., no good reason to think God exists in the first place)

    That is the very point of contention. Dawkins’ attempt at countering the classical philosophical arguments was a miserable failure.

  69. #69 tomh
    December 29, 2006

    Robert O’Brien wrote:
    Dawkins’ attempt at countering the classical philosophical arguments was a miserable failure.

    According to you. The biggest mystery in all of blogdom is why anyone bothers with your nonsense at all.

  70. #70 windy
    December 29, 2006

    If neither you nor Dawkins need to read that wide spectrum, then either of you should already be able to explain why the Trinity is indeed stupid. One thing I’ve noticed is that neither you nor him had actually offered an explanation, only bald assertion and mockery.

    Interestingly no one has presented one of those arguments for God that Dawkins supposedly missed, either. Oh, well.

    On Trinity: how does that “why hast thou forsaken me” bit fit in?

  71. #71 Robert O'Brien
    December 29, 2006

    Interestingly no one has presented one of those arguments for God that Dawkins supposedly missed, either. Oh, well.

    Whether he missed some arguments is not as important as his absolute bungling of the serious arguments he did touch upon. Horse laugh and analogy do not constitute a legitimate rebuttal.

  72. #72 J. J. Ramsey
    December 29, 2006

    holland: “No, it’s like saying that it’s stupid to debate whether the emperor is wearing plaid stripes rather than pink polka dots (i.e., whether God’s nature is Trinitarian or Unitarian) when there’s no good reason to think the emperor is wearing any clothes at all (i.e., no good reason to think God exists in the first place).”

    So you are accusing Dawkins of stupidity. If you’d been paying attention, you would have noticed that it was Dawkins who did the purported equivalent of debating “whether the emperor is wearing plaid stripes rather than pink polka dots.”

    Koray: “I don’t know whether Dawkins criticized _particulars_ of xtian/islamic theology in The God Delusion (I haven’t read it).”

    He did to some extent. For example, he touched on the Trinity, the atonement. If the 72 virgins bit counts as Islamic theology, then he can be said to have briefly touched a bit of Islamic theology as well.

    Koray: “Why does he hope? If the primary text (actually, I would call it ‘the only text’) is wrong, why would you read the ‘secondary’ text?”

    The secondary texts can shed light on possible interpretations, problems, and other issues in the primary texts.

    windy: “how does that ‘why hast thou forsaken me’ bit fit in?”

    Depends on who you ask. Psalm 22 is certainly part of the picture. “Why hast thou forsaken me?” is the first line of a psalm that has been treated by Christians as messianic prophecy.

  73. #73 Caledonian
    December 29, 2006

    The whole point of Dawkins’ criticism is to make people look at the theologies of their faith and see that none of it makes any sense.

    Making theology look absurd of course isn’t very challenging, since it is absurd, but even so the only people I’ve heard claim that he did a poor job of attacking the arguments of theism are theists and people I strongly suspect are lying theists trying to pass themselves off as neutral observers.

    I do believe I’ll go down to my local library tomorrow and read the book for myself. I’d love to see all of the bungled arguments Dawkins has supposedly made.

  74. #74 holland
    December 29, 2006

    J.J. Ramsey,

    So you are accusing Dawkins of stupidity.

    No, I’m accusing you of stupidity. And also of dishonesty. I’ve seen enough of your shtick now to be fairly confident that you’re one of those lying theists posing as a neutral observer that Caledonian just mentioned.

    If you’d been paying attention, you would have noticed that it was Dawkins who did the purported equivalent of debating “whether the emperor is wearing plaid stripes rather than pink polka dots.

    No, Dawkins did not do that. What Dawkins did is to point out the stupidity of debates that rest on discredited premises.

  75. #75 holland
    December 29, 2006

    J.J.Ramsey,

    I highly doubt that you were brought up noticing that human testimony is more reliable on some matters than others.

    Really? You really think people in our culture are “brought up” “not noticing” that people are more likely to lie or otherwise misrepresent the truth about some things than others? Then you’re even more clueless than I thought.

    I highly doubt that your culture pointed out that there is an inverse relationship between how spectacular a report of a miracle is and how verifiable it is.

    That may be because there is no evidence of such a relationship. Perhaps you meant to qualify “miracle” rather than “report” with “spectacular,” but who knows? You seem as confused on this point as on everything else.

    I have noticed that many people who rail at the absurdity of miracles simply beg the question …

    You’ll have to explain what “beg the question on miracles” (What question? There are many) is supposed to mean before this claim is meaningful, let alone justified.

    … on miracles or say vaguely that science rules them out.

    Miracles are strongly contradicted by the evidence of science. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be miracles. If science does not “rule them out,” it is only in the trivial sense that science does not “rule out” a flat earth or a 6,000-year-old universe either. It is logically possible, although wildly implausible, that the scientific evidence against these claims is fatally flawed, or that there is a God who suspended or otherwise messed with the laws of nature to permit them to happen but in a way that makes them appear scientifically impossible, or that through some other means they are true.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you try to rehabilitate belief in miracles. The belief that miracles are real clearly has some importance to you. Another sign that you’re a closet believer trying to pass yourself off as a dispassionate observer.

  76. #76 J. J. Ramsey
    December 30, 2006

    Me: “I highly doubt that you were brought up noticing that human testimony is more reliable on some matters than others.”

    holland: “You really think people in our culture are ‘brought up’ ‘not noticing’ that people are more likely to lie or otherwise misrepresent the truth about some things than others?”

    Sorry, what I wrote was ill-phrased. The point I was trying to make is that people often underestimate just how bad human testimony is when it comes to miracles, especially if that testimony is from a friend or someone else who is close or trusted.

    Me: “I highly doubt that your culture pointed out that there is an inverse relationship between how spectacular a report of a miracle is and how verifiable it is.”

    holland: “That may be because there is no evidence of such a relationship. Perhaps you meant to qualify “miracle” rather than “report” with “spectacular,” but who knows? You seem as confused on this point as on everything else.”

    What?! What do you mean, “no evidence of such a relationship”?

    Take the resurrection, for example, A man gets whipped half to death, crucified, put in wraps that would suffocate him even if the crucifixion hadn’t killed him, and sealed in a tomb with a stone cover that he’d likely be too weak to push over. Yet three days later, he’s out and about, and aside from a few holes that don’t seem to handicap him, he’s no worse for wear. All very spectacular–and all very unverifiable. The first known account of the story (the one in the Gospel of Mark) arguably contains hints meant to explain why the story hadn’t been circulating among Christians until it was seen in the Gospel of Mark. Verifying the story would be nontrivial for most people, since it would require money, time for travel that might otherwise be spent working to feed the family, and so on. Everything we know of the story is from biased reporters who have committed known distortions of fact, or–in the case of Paul–provides no details that would have been checkable by his readers.

    Take the example of some healings that supposedly happened in Estonia. The page Encouragment and Healing currenty reads (though maybe this will change?):

    I’ll never forget watching a woman, blind in one eye, receive her sight back from the Lord. Some of the team prayed for her and gradually her sight was completely restored. On another occasion, we had a word from the Lord about a person with a dysfunctional jaw. A young lady came to the front and the team prayed, laid hands on her and waited on the Lord. We heard a cracking sound and her jaw was freed. She was totally healed.

    This is somewhat less impressive, but on first blush doesn’t have an obvious naturalistic explanation. There are some things that look suspicious, though. So a woman had been blind in one eye. Was it from a condition that we know goes away by itself? The article doesn’t say. A young lady had a “dysfunctional jaw”? What does that mean? The article doesn’t say. To verify these purported miracles, one would have to go to Estonia and find these people, who are (ahem) unnamed. Again, the kind of miracle that might be interesting if it were true is out of reach of verification.

    Contrast this with “miracles” such as the spontaneous remission of cancer or the relief of back pain. Doctors are usually around to verify the relief of symptoms, but these supposed miracles are vastly more likely to be examples of the body healing itself naturally or of the placebo effect.

    I think this makes pretty clear what I mean when I write of “an inverse relationship between how spectacular a report of a miracle is and how verifiable it is.”

    BTW, I prefer to speak of a “report of a miracle” because what we know of supposed miracles comes from human testimony. I suggest that you go read Hume’s “On Miracles” for why that matters.

    holland: “You’ll have to explain what “beg the question on miracles” (What question? There are many) is supposed to mean before this claim is meaningful, let alone justified.”

    See here: http://begthequestion.info/

    holland: “It is logically possible, although wildly implausible, that the scientific evidence against these claims is fatally flawed, or that there is a God who suspended or otherwise messed with the laws of nature to permit them to happen but in a way that makes them appear scientifically impossible, or that through some other means they are true.”

    I would agree.

    holland: “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you try to rehabilitate belief in miracles.”

    Evidence? How about a link to recent past comments? More likely, your idea of me “rehabilitat[ing] belief in miracles” is simply me objecting to bad arguments against miracles.

    holland: “Another sign that you’re a closet believer trying to pass yourself off as a dispassionate observer.”

    Yep, that’s right. Pointing out something that undermines the Moral Law argument, and in a way that turns out roughly similar to Dawkins’ approach in TGD is a great way to promote theism. Really.

    For all you know, I could be an atheist who isn’t all the way out of the closet and is a bit circumspect about admitting it.

  77. #77 SmellyTerror
    December 31, 2006

    J.J. Ramsey,

    To borrow from some of SmellyTerror’s take on the Courtier’s Reply, this is like saying it’s stupid for the emperor to wear plaid with stripes because the emperor is naked.

    holland,

    No, it’s like saying that it’s stupid to debate whether the emperor is wearing plaid stripes rather than pink polka dots (i.e., whether God’s nature is Trinitarian or Unitarian) when there’s no good reason to think the emperor is wearing any clothes at all (i.e., no good reason to think God exists in the first place).

    No, you’re both right. You’re talking past one another.

    Dawkins claims the Emperor has no clothes. It should be irrelevant, then, what kind of clothes he is or is not wearing.

    Then Dawkins goes and argues about the type of clothes the Emperor doesn’t have. That’s silly. It was a mistake to do so, and he did it poorly.

    …but he responds to criticism by falling back to his fundamental position – the Emperor is naked anyway. It’s a bit of a cop out, but it is supportable.

    Was his excursion into theology ill-advised? I think so. He was, I gather, trying to fight on “enemy ground” – he’s tried to say “not only does the Emperor not have clothes, but the clothes you think he has are silly. No Emperor would wear plaid with stripes”. You can see his intent: get the clothes-believers to look at their own beliefs, get a bit of doubt going, and hope that’ll make them more responsive to the entire “no clothes” position. Problem was, the plaid/stripes argument had been resolved years ago, so all he really did was to unzip his ignorance and waggle it around a little. Not unlike our Emperor.

    But when this additional argument failed, he can (rightly) fall back to the main one. A little sunburned in places, perhaps, but intact.

  78. #78 Greg Byshenk
    December 31, 2006

    robert O’Brien wrote:

    That is the very point of contention. Dawkins’ attempt at
    countering the classical philosophical arguments was a miserable failure.

    Perhaps that is “the point of contention”, but the problem is
    that all of the contending seems to consist of bare assertions and
    hand-waving.

    It is insufficient merely to assert that the counter is a “failure”;
    rather, one must show how the counterargument fails. It is also
    insufficient to wave in the direction of some other text; rather, one
    is obliged to explain how the other text is a counter to the position
    one challenges. And this is not some arcane scientific matter. In
    philosophical argument, it is insufficient to say “he fails to take
    account of Kant’s Prolegomena“, in literature it is insufficient
    to say “he fails to take account of Madame Bovary“, and even in
    theology it is insufficient to say “he fails to take account of
    Augustine’s Confessions” — without also at the very least saying
    what it is about the Prolegomena, Madame Bovary, or the
    Confessions that is supposed to be relevant to the argument at
    hand.

    It is possible that Dawkins has missed something, or failed in
    some argument. But if one wishes to assert that such actually is the
    case — and to have one’s assertion taken seriously — then one must
    show what he has missed or how he has failed. And this, so far
    as I have seen, is what all of the objections to Dawkins fail to do.

  79. #79 J. J. Ramsey
    December 31, 2006

    An earlier post I made approached essay-length and got stuck in moderation perhaps for that reason, so I’ll try to be briefer.

    Me: “I highly doubt that your culture pointed out that there is an inverse relationship between how spectacular a report of a miracle is and how verifiable it is.”

    holland: That may be because there is no evidence of such a relationship. Perhaps you meant to qualify “miracle” rather than “report” with “spectacular,”

    What I had in mind was that reports of spectacular miracles tend to be impractical to verify. They either happened a long time ago or somewhere very far away, and little tells that might have given away a clear naturalistic explanation are missing from the reports. Miracles that supposedly happened closer to home tend to be along the lines of “my cancer was healed” or “my back pain went away.”

    holland: “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you try to rehabilitate belief in miracles.”

    Evidence? I suspect that your idea of “rehabilitate belief in miracles” is more along the lines of me arguing against bad arguments against miracles.

    holland: “Another sign that you’re a closet believer trying to pass yourself off as a dispassionate observer.”

    For all you know, I could be an atheist who hasn’t come all the way out of the closet and drops hints instead of coming clear outright. In any case, you’re doing an ad hominem.

  80. #80 windy
    December 31, 2006

    “how does that ‘why hast thou forsaken me’ bit fit in?”
    Depends on who you ask. Psalm 22 is certainly part of the picture. “Why hast thou forsaken me?” is the first line of a psalm that has been treated by Christians as messianic prophecy.

    Umm, so what? I was asking how the purportedly prophesied event fit in with the notion of Trinity. Why does Jesus need to ask if God has forsaken him, if they are the same being?

  81. #81 J. J. Ramsey
    December 31, 2006

    windy: “I was asking how the purportedly prophesied event fit in with the notion of Trinity. Why does Jesus need to ask if God has forsaken him, if they are the same being?”

    Some would argue that he’s quoting a messianic psalm and not really saying that God has forsaken him, emphasis on the word “some,” which is why I said “Depends on who you ask.” Others would respond that though Jesus and the Father are both part of the Godhead, they are separate persons. Realistically speaking, if one takes the Gospel of Mark on its own terms, it is not a work where you will find the Trinity. If you really want to find out how Trinitarian theologians made Mark fit in with orthodox Christian theology, I suggest that you look up a few detailed commentaries in a public library, or better yet, a university library. This is “maze of twisty passages” territory. Dawkins would probably have had a much simpler time showing that the Trinity was an idea superimposed on a New Testament that presented differing views on Jesus, rather than an idea organically arising from the New Testament texts.

  82. #82 Caledonian
    December 31, 2006

    Was his excursion into theology ill-advised? I think so. He was, I gather, trying to fight on “enemy ground” – he’s tried to say “not only does the Emperor not have clothes, but the clothes you think he has are silly.

    Not that the clothes he’s supposedly wearing are silly, but that they have a variety of impossible qualities. Not just ugly, or unfashionable, but impossible.

    You’re being absurd.

  83. #83 Owlmirror
    December 31, 2006

    Not that the clothes he’s supposedly wearing are silly, but that they have a variety of impossible qualities. Not just ugly, or unfashionable, but impossible.

    The brim of the Emperor’s hat is a perfectly round circle (whose ratio of circumference to diameter is exactly 3), and a perfect 4-sided square, and an equilateral right triangle, all at the same time.

    How can mere mortals criticize the Emperor’s hat by insisting that is impossible for it to be all of those things at once! It is a geometrical mystery, and can only be understood by the Emperor and his tailors.

  84. #84 Mark C
    December 31, 2006

    What I love about the Christianists argument in this thread (besides its utter foolishness) is the way it undermines Christianity in the process. For the last two millenia, one of the main appeals of Christianity has been its accessibility to the masses. It was a draw for both master and slave. If the ignorant has access to heaven… well, you can guess its pull. The anti-Dawkins group writing here is saying that the mysteries of God and Jesus are not there for any old schlub but can only be brought to us by the learned and studious. “So sorry, all you commoners, but you need the pope or pat robertson to reveal all that stuff that gets you into heaven.” It’s elitist garbage, and it’s not even Christian.

  85. #85 windy
    December 31, 2006

    Others would respond that though Jesus and the Father are both part of the Godhead, they are separate persons.

    Meaning what, exactly?

    Realistically speaking, if one takes the Gospel of Mark on its own terms, it is not a work where you will find the Trinity.

    Nor elsewhere in the Bible. Look, you were the one asking for explicit arguments against the Trinity. How about some explicit arguments for it?

    If you really want to find out how Trinitarian theologians made Mark fit in with orthodox Christian theology, I suggest that you look up a few detailed commentaries in a public library, or better yet, a university library.

    This answer implies once again that critics of Christian theology have simply missed all these sophisticated arguments that are to be found somewhere else. How about a quick summary?

    (btw, it is interesting that even the possibly most basal gospel has to be “made to fit in” with orthodox Chr. theology)

    This is “maze of twisty passages” territory. Dawkins would probably have had a much simpler time showing that the Trinity was an idea superimposed on a New Testament that presented differing views on Jesus, rather than an idea organically arising from the New Testament texts.

    As opposed to what? Did Dawkins say something silly about the Trinity? What was it?

  86. #86 J. J. Ramsey
    December 31, 2006

    windy: “Look, you were the one asking for explicit arguments against the Trinity. How about some explicit arguments for it?”

    Personally, I’m not sure it is cogent myself, and I don’t really care if it is. I was asking for explicit arguments against the Trinity because too many people on this thread were trying to say that it was trivial to refute, and I wanted them to put up or shut up.

    windy: “How about a quick summary?”

    “Maze of twisty passages” is a quick summary if one is talking about the Trinity. :)

    windy: “Did Dawkins say something silly about the Trinity?”

    It’s more what he didn’t say. He wrote cutesy barbs about it and later in TGD asserted that it was illogical, but he never actually demonstrated its inconsistency.

  87. #87 Caledonian
    December 31, 2006

    Persons are not indivisible, indivisible things do not proceed from each other, and a ‘god’ is not a committee.

    The ancient recognition that it was nonsense to proclaim belief in one Godhead made up of three entities is precisely why it was accorded the theological status of mystery: a revealed doctrine not understandable by reason that had to be accepted on faith not merely in spite of its absurdity but because of it.

    JJ is almost certainly an equivocating theist. He has the scent of Jesuitry, although they were hardly the first to practice the art of deception for pious ends, just the ones who raised it to an art form. JJ is a passionate but mostly incompetent practitioner.

  88. #88 windy
    December 31, 2006

    Personally, I’m not sure it is cogent myself, and I don’t really care if it is. I was asking for explicit arguments against the Trinity because too many people on this thread were trying to say that it was trivial to refute, and I wanted them to put up or shut up.

    And I offered explicit evidence against it – it doesn’t make sense in light of the supposed behaviour of supposed members of the Trinity.

    There might be other beings that can exist as a Trinity without contradiction, but then we are back in Teapots-in-Orbitville.

    “Maze of twisty passages” is a quick summary if one is talking about the Trinity.

    OK, the refutation of the Trinity is also a maze of twisty passages. How’s that? :)

  89. #89 J. J. Ramsey
    December 31, 2006

    Mark C: “For the last two millenia, one of the main appeals of Christianity has been its accessibility to the masses.”

    With a remark like that, I guess you must be a Protestant atheist. :) Seriously though, the idea that the Bible is an accessible book that would be in the hands of the average Christian is relatively recent and came with the rise of printing.

    Mark C: “The anti-Dawkins group writing here is saying that the mysteries of God and Jesus are not there for any old schlub but can only be brought to us by the learned and studious.”

    No, what Heard and I are saying is that Dawkins has to understand the dogmas that he criticizes and present cogent arguments against them. It just so happens that one of the dogmas he picked, the Trinity, was particularly hairy.

    windy: “And I offered explicit evidence against it – it doesn’t make sense in light of the supposed behaviour of supposed members of the Trinity.”

    Trouble is, that behavior has been at least nominally accounted for, at the very least simply by the idea of the Trinity being a mystery, and to some extent by the idea of the members of the trinity being separate persons.

    windy: “OK, the refutation of the Trinity is also a maze of twisty passages. How’s that? :)”

    I think many a theologian would be laughing with you on that point rather than at you. :)

  90. #90 windy
    December 31, 2006

    No, what Heard and I are saying is that Dawkins has to understand the dogmas that he criticizes and present cogent arguments against them. It just so happens that one of the dogmas he picked, the Trinity, was particularly hairy.

    And what if it turns out nobody understands it?

    windy: “And I offered explicit evidence against it – it doesn’t make sense in light of the supposed behaviour of supposed members of the Trinity.”
    Trouble is, that behavior has been at least nominally accounted for, at the very least simply by the idea of the Trinity being a mystery…

    … which accounts for nothing, sorry. Is Noah’s Ark mystery?

    and to some extent by the idea of the members of the trinity being separate persons.

    The problem is not the separate persons. Most people understand very well that a father and son are probably separate persons, even if supernatural. The problem is making them the same being.

    The ‘Q continuum’ in ST:TNG never made much sense, either…

  91. #91 Owlmirror
    December 31, 2006

    Funnily enough, even those who argue in favor of the Trinity admit that it’s a completely daft idea:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15047a.htm

    (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, article on the Trinity)

    It is manifest that a dogma so mysterious presupposes a Divine revelation. When the fact of revelation, understood in its full sense as the speech of God to man, is no longer admitted, the rejection of the doctrine follows as a necessary consequence.

    Of course, the “fact” of revelation is no such thing, but they’re not going to admit that in a Catholic encyclopedia.

    Following the link to the article on “revelation” is also interesting, for the way that it twists words around.

    I’m not surprised that Dawkins does not want to deal with the details of theology; it’s just a mess of quote-mining, unquestioned assumptions, fossilized traditions, and skewed arguments.

  92. #92 Mark C
    December 31, 2006

    J.J. Ramsey wrote–”…the idea that the Bible is an accessible book that would be in the hands of the average Christian is relatively recent and came with the rise of printing.”

    Mr. Ramsey, if by “relatively recent” you mean “during the time of the Roman Empire” then I concede the point. I never spoke of the bible but of the idea of Christianity itself, which was readily passed through all levels of Roman society. The idea that the keys to heaven were available to all proved quite alluring.

    The same attractiveness is, no doubt, what persuaded American slaves to convert so readily. By the way, they didn’t have bibles available to them, either, as reading and knowledge were frowned upon by the powers that be.

    Your point seems to be, as I mentioned earlier, that I need someone like Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard or Kent Hovind around to tell me how to pray, think or tie my shoes. So thanks for reinforcing my argument about the elitism of the Christianist POV.

  93. #93 J. J. Ramsey
    January 1, 2007

    windy: “Is Noah’s Ark mystery?”

    Comparing Noah’s Ark to the Trinity is silly. The measurements of the Ark are clearly stated in Genesis, and there is no sign that it was supposed to be like an oversized TARDIS. Judging what will and will not fit in it is straightforward.

    Mark C: “I never spoke of the bible but of the idea of Christianity itself, which was readily passed through all levels of Roman society.”

    There is a vast difference between knowing the basics, which is what Christians would think they needed for salvation, and knowing the kind of hairy details needed to decisively refute a hairy doctrine like the Trinity.

    Mark C: “Your point seems to be, as I mentioned earlier, that I need someone like Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard or Kent Hovind around to tell me how to pray, think or tie my shoes.”

    I repeat what I wrote above, which you obviously did not parse correctly:

    “No, what Heard and I are saying is that Dawkins has to understand the dogmas that he criticizes and present cogent arguments against them. It just so happens that one of the dogmas he picked, the Trinity, was particularly hairy.”

    If debunking the Trinity were as simple as praying, thinking or tying one’s shoes, why didn’t Dawkins do it? Why did he pull the same kind of stunt as creationists do, substituting ridicule for argument?

  94. #94 SmellyTerror
    January 1, 2007

    Caledonian:

    Not that the clothes he’s supposedly wearing are silly, but that they have a variety of impossible qualities. Not just ugly, or unfashionable, but impossible.

    You’re being absurd.

    …I’m being absurd by not correctly describing the clothes that the Emperor who doesn’t exist isn’t wearing?

    You’re a little full of yourself, aren’t you?

    Fine. Impossible. See Owlmirror’s post directly below yours. See? It doesn’t matter! The impossibility of the Emperor’s clothes have been discussed ad nausium, Dawkins comes along and says “Hang on, that’s impossible!” and the answer is “Duh! We’ve discussed this already. It’s impossible for *your* clothes, but not the Emperors.”

    To which Dawkins answers “Well he’s naked anyway”.

    Do you really not understand the point, or are you being dense on purpose? Do you feel that agreeing with something is a poor way to prove your superiority?

  95. #95 Greg Byshenk
    January 1, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    No, what Heard and I are saying is that Dawkins has to
    understand the dogmas that he criticizes and present cogent arguments
    against them. It just so happens that one of the dogmas he picked, the
    Trinity, was particularly hairy.

    The problem with this is that it appears no one “understands”
    the dogma of the trinity, because it is incoherent and incapable of being
    “understood” in any meaningful way. Which is why even the church itself
    ultimately retreats to the position that such is a “mystery” — meaning
    basically: “we don’t understand it either, but we will continue to
    assert it, nonetheless”.

    Your challenge is equivalent to the demand that one must “understand”
    round squares before one can reject them. But such is not the case.
    “Round square” is a combination of words that purports to describe a
    concept which is itself incoherent and incapable of being “understood”.

  96. #96 J. J. Ramsey
    January 1, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “Your challenge is equivalent to the demand that one must “understand” round squares before one can reject them. But such is not the case. ‘Round square’ is a combination of words that purports to describe a concept which is itself incoherent and incapable of being ‘understood’.”

    This is begging the question. Most Christians would assert that the Trinity is impossible to grasp fully because it is beyond human understanding. In other words, our problems in grasping the Trinity purportedly have to do with our own limitations, not with the Trinity. What you have to do is show that our own limitations are not the problem with grasping the Trinity, but rather that there is a genuine contradiction. In other words, I’m challenging you to show that the Trinity is a “round square.”

    It’s easy to show that a “round square” is a contradiction, since both “round” and “square” have simple meanings. With the Trinity, the idea of a “person” (or to be more precise, hypostasis, which isn’t quite the same thing, IIRC) gets very subtle. What it means for these persons to be one gets subtle. Then you have to deal with the various takes on it by various theologians, and sort out the mistakes in their arguments versus the supposed errors in the concept of the Trinity itself. And on it goes. Hunting down the contradiction isn’t as easy as it appears at first blush.

  97. #97 windy
    January 1, 2007

    With the Trinity, the idea of a “person” (or to be more precise, hypostasis, which isn’t quite the same thing, IIRC) gets very subtle. What it means for these persons to be one gets subtle. Then you have to deal with the various takes on it by various theologians, and sort out the mistakes in their arguments versus the supposed errors in the concept of the Trinity itself. And on it goes.

    This is bad news to billions of believers over the years, who have been and are expected to gain some rudimentary idea of the Trinity just by listening to a priest and/or reading the Bible. If this Trinity business is of any importance, I guess most of them are likely in hell by now, since they never heard of hypostases or other advanced theological ideas that we now hear are essential to understanding the Trinity.

  98. #98 J. J. Ramsey
    January 1, 2007

    windy: “This is bad news to billions of believers over the years, who have been and are expected to gain some rudimentary idea of the Trinity just by listening to a priest and/or reading the Bible.”

    Arrgh! How can rationalists be so quick to erect straw men?

    As I already pointed out to Mark C., there is a vast difference between knowing the basics, which is what Christians would think they needed for salvation, and knowing the kind of hairy details needed to decisively refute a hairy doctrine like the Trinity.

  99. #99 Owlmirror
    January 2, 2007

    there is a vast difference between knowing the basics, which is what Christians would think they needed for salvation, and knowing the kind of hairy details needed to decisively refute a hairy doctrine like the Trinity.

    Yet the basics of what is needed for salvation is at least partly based on some interpretation of the Trinity. Was it part of God himself, or someone separate from God, or what? So it follows that everyone is eternally damned because the exact nature of what happened is humanly incomprehensible.

    But claiming that the Trinity is a ‘mystery’, and therefore cannot be “decisively refuted” is also wrong in itself. ‘Mystery’ is just a handwave; a refusal to acknowledge contradiction by the simple assertion that it’s not meant to be understood. One could just as easily assert that the doctrine of the naked man wearing clothes is a ‘mystery’. It explains nothing, it demonstrates nothing, it contradicts all common understanding, and it rejects all logic by fiat.

    Reading the Church’s own arguments for the Trinity, it quickly becomes obvious that the whole thing is supported on nothing. Some theologian notes that in some of the books of the New Testament:

    • Jesus occasionally verbally arrogates himself to being closer to God than everyone else;
    • Some characters in the bible say things that can be taken with similarly putting Jesus on the same level as God;
    • There’s a few verses that speak of the Holy Ghost, and it is assumed that this is a third person being referred to;
    • Some of the later characters in the bible speak of “Father, son, and holy ghost”, and it is argued that this means three in one;
    • Finally, various theologians, hundreds of years later, argued for this interpretation and passed it on as official doctrine.

    And that’s all that there is. Just some scattered verses in the bible, and a particular interpretation of them, which is acknowledged to be unreasonable, so there’s no reason any reasonable person should take any of it seriously.

    Since the Trinity was handwaved out of nothing, it can just as easily be handwaved back into nothing. Why does it deserve more effort than that?

  100. #100 J. J. Ramsey
    January 2, 2007

    Owlmirror: “Since the Trinity was handwaved out of nothing, it can just as easily be handwaved back into nothing. Why does it deserve more effort than that?”

    Because handwaving is bad argument no matter who does it.

  101. #101 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    You said:

    I highly doubt that your culture pointed out that there is an inverse relationship between how spectacular a report of a miracle is and how verifiable it is.

    What does the verifiability of a miracle have to do with how spectacular its report is? The verifiability of a miracle depends on the quantity and quality of evidence available to support it, not on how spectacular the report is.

    Only that doesn’t make sense either, if “miracle” is understood in the usual sense to mean an intervention by God in the natural world to produce an event that is strongly inconsistent with our understanding of natural law. How could you possibly “verify” that such an intervention had actually occurred?

    It is logically possible that the world is only 6,000 years old and that the corpse of Jesus Christ came back to life after rotting in the desert for 72 hours, but both claims are so thoroughly contradicted by scientific evidence that they are rightly considered absurd.

  102. #102 J. J. Ramsey
    January 2, 2007

    holland: “What does the verifiability of a miracle have to do with how spectacular its report is? The verifiability of a miracle depends on the quantity and quality of evidence available to support it, not on how spectacular the report is.”

    Sigh. If you stopped assuming that I was trying to “rehabilitate belief in miracles,” then you would find what I’m trying to say rather trivial to understand.

  103. #103 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    I can only respond to what you did say, not what you intended to say but didn’t. You appear to think there’s something wrong with the view that miracles are absurd, but you have yet to provide a serious argument for that position.

  104. #104 Greg Byshenk
    January 2, 2007

    So, J. J. Ramsey, you now admit that your demand that “Dawkins has to
    understand the dogmas that he criticizes” — eg: the trinity — is
    in fact a demand that is impossible to meet, since such is posited
    as “beyond human understanding”. Let me guess, you are also one of those
    folks who goes around demanding that non-theists somehow disprove “god”,
    while refusing to define your ‘god’ sufficiently to admit of proof…,
    right?

    And I am in no way “begging the question”. I am merely pointing out
    that the supposed concept of the Trinity is in fact incoherent and incapable
    of being understood. You can mash together words like ‘one godhead’ and
    ‘three persons’, but that accomplishes nothing, as the supposed concept
    remains incoherent — just as is the case of putting the words ’round’ and
    ‘square’ together.

    I will add that indeed you are begging the question, because the
    supposed concept of the Trinity is something posited, and posited as
    beyond understanding
    ! It is as if I begin to talk about a ’roundsquare’,
    which I claim to be a special kind of object that is both round and square,
    but in a special way that is “beyond human understanding”. Were I to do
    such a thing, thinking people would say that I was talking nonsense. And
    rightly so
    .

    Finally, I will add that your continuing demands that one “ha[s] to deal
    with” various theological gibberish are utterly vacuous. The concept is
    incoherent on its face, the Church recognizes that it is incoherent, and indeed
    you yourself admit that it is incoherent. The supposed concept is nonsense,
    and even the church admits that there is no way to make sense of it. Why
    should one waste their time reading thousands of pages of obscure argument
    when one knows already that the conclusion is: “yes, you were right, it’s
    nonsense”?

  105. #105 J. J. Ramsey
    January 2, 2007

    holland: “You appear to think there’s something wrong with the view that miracles are absurd”

    No, I think there is something wrong with writing “I don’t need to acquaint myself with anything more specific than my own culture to know that” miracles, etc. are absurd. That’s as daft as saying, “I don’t need to acquaint myself with anything more specific than my own culture to know that evolution is a fact.” Someone who writes something like that has to be ignorant of all the groundwork (like the work of Hume!) that has been done to establish the propositions that he/she takes for granted.

    Take another look at this comment of mine above to see what I’m getting at as far as the relationship between the scale of a purported miracle and its verifiability: Link

  106. #106 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    No,…

    No? Then why did you write, “I have noticed that many people who rail at the absurdity of miracles simply beg the question on miracles or say vaguely that science rules them out?” Miracles are absurd because they are strongly contradicted by science, just like young-earth creationism and flat-earthism. Do you disagree?

    Take another look at this comment of mine above to see what I’m getting at as far as the relationship between the scale of a purported miracle and its verifiability.

    I read that when you posted it, and it doesn’t make any more sense now than it did then. As I said, if there is any sense in which miracles could be “verified,” it would be through evidence. Whether the report of the miracle is “spectacular” or not is irrelevant. But since miracles involve a supposed supernatural intervention into the natural world, it is hard to see what kind of evidence could possibly verify them.

  107. #107 J. J. Ramsey
    January 2, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “So, J. J. Ramsey, you now admit that your demand that ‘Dawkins has to understand the dogmas that he criticizes’ — eg: the trinity — is in fact a demand that is impossible to meet, since such is posited as ‘beyond human understanding’.”

    The Trinity is supposed to be beyond human understanding, but the writings about it are obviously not, since they were written by human beings. In principle, Dawkins can slog through the various writings on the concept of the Trinity and hunt down whatever contradiction(s) there may be in the concept.

    Greg Byshenk: “You can mash together words like ‘one godhead’ and ‘three persons’, but that accomplishes nothing, as the supposed concept remains incoherent — just as is the case of putting the words ’round’ and ‘square’ together.”

    There’s a problem in your analogy. The word “round” implies a lack of corners, which makes it an inappropriate adjective for a square. By contrast, there is nothing about the word “godhead” that would imply that it cannot be a combination of three things, whether they be persons or whatnot. Now there is certainly the possibility that the way these three things are supposedly melded together is incoherent, but that depends on the specifics of the supposed relationships between these things, not on the mere juxtaposition of the words “godhead” and “three things.”

    Greg Byshenk: “Let me guess, you are also one of those folks who goes around demanding that non-theists somehow disprove ‘god’, while refusing to define your ‘god’ sufficiently to admit of proof…, right?”

    Wrong. One can make a good cumulative case that God most likely does not exist. I just find it very irritating when people who supposedly stand for rationality come up with bad arguments against God, especially since it is unnecessary.

  108. #108 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    Dawkins doesn’t need to find a contradiction because the whole concept of the Trinity has already been rendered incoherent by the claim that it is “beyond human understanding.” If he did find a contradiction you could simply wave your hand again and declare that the contradiction isn’t really a problem because it can be resolved, but only in a way that is “beyond human understanding.” The “beyond human understanding” guff is simply a rhetorical trump card that you can play to invalidate any conceivable rational critique of the doctrine.

  109. #109 windy
    January 2, 2007
    “What does the verifiability of a miracle have to do with how spectacular its report is? The verifiability of a miracle depends on the quantity and quality of evidence available to support it, not on how spectacular the report is.”

    Sigh. If you stopped assuming that I was trying to “rehabilitate belief in miracles,” then you would find what I’m trying to say rather trivial to understand.

    Your statement “there is an inverse relationship between how spectacular a report of a miracle is and how verifiable it is” is indeed rather trivial in one sense, but I think the confusion stems from your implication that this tells us something profound about miracles? Rather than just common sense?

    There is no inherent relationship between the fabulousness and verifiability of a miracle. Spectacular non-verifiable miracles are simply the only ones that tend to survive longer periods of time, since non-verifiable ones are immune to falsification and only spectacular reports are interesting enough to repeat.

    What about the following two statements based on your statement about miracles?

    “there is an inverse relationship between how much weight loss is reported as a result from a new diet and how respectable the source is”

    “there is an inverse relationship between how improbable an urban legend is and how distant the place or person reported in the legend are to the one telling the tale”

    How can your conclusion be anything else than that non-verifiable claims are more likely to be poppycock? Why do miracles deserve more respect?

  110. #110 J. J. Ramsey
    January 2, 2007

    holland: “Dawkins doesn’t need to find a contradiction because the whole concept of the Trinity has already been rendered incoherent by the claim that it is ‘beyond human understanding.’”

    That only follows if all coherent concepts are within human understanding, an unlikely premise to say the least.

    holland: “The ‘beyond human understanding’ guff is simply a rhetorical trump card that you can play to invalidate any conceivable rational critique of the doctrine.”

    It can be used that way, but it is not an impenetrable shield to rational critique. For example, an apologist may try to explain away the Old Testament genocides by saying that God’s justice is beyond human understanding. This fails, however, because justice is a humanly comprehensible concept and adding the possessive “God’s” to “justice” does not make not-justice into justice. A similar attack might be mounted on the Trinity, provided that all the parts of it that are supposed to be humanly comprehensible are spelled out. (Obviously, the Trinity could not be completely humanly incomprehensible, or else we couldn’t even have a debate about it.) The catch is ensuring that this spelling out is done, which is nontrivial.

    holland: “Then why did you write, ‘I have noticed that many people who rail at the absurdity of miracles simply beg the question on miracles or say vaguely that science rules them out?’”

    Begging the question on miracles is a logical fallacy, and saying vaguely that science rules miracles is handwaving and often just another way of begging the question. That’s why I wrote it.

    holland: “Miracles are absurd because they are strongly contradicted by science, just like young-earth creationism and flat-earthism. Do you disagree?”

    Partially. Young-earth creationism and flat-earthism are essentially failed scientific theories. They make predictions that are not satisfied by the data. Miracles are not theories; they do not make predictions, not even in principle. You are making a category error. Purported miracles have problems of their own, however, as windy pointed out above:

    What about the following two statements based on your statement about miracles?

    “there is an inverse relationship between how much weight loss is reported as a result from a new diet and how respectable the source is”

    “there is an inverse relationship between how improbable an urban legend is and how distant the place or person reported in the legend are to the one telling the tale”

    How can your conclusion be anything else than that non-verifiable claims are more likely to be poppycock? Why do miracles deserve more respect?

    Finally, somebody got my point.

  111. #111 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    That only follows if all coherent concepts are within human understanding, an unlikely premise to say the least.

    Since coherence is defined by logical consistency and other concepts understandable to humans, the notion that the Trinity is coherent in a way that humans cannot understand is meaningless. If the quality you’re referring to is literally incomprehensible to human beings, then calling it “coherence” conveys no more useful information about its meaning than calling it “gibberish” or anything else.

  112. #112 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    Begging the question on miracles is a logical fallacy,

    Begging what question on miracles is a logical fallacy? You keep going on about “begging the question on miracles” without saying what question you’re referring to.

    and saying vaguely that science rules [out?] miracles is handwaving and often just another way of begging the question. That’s why I wrote it.

    The phrase “science rules out miracles” is yours. I agree it’s vague, because you don’t explain the sense in which you mean “rules out.” As I said, science doesn’t necessarily “rule out” miracles as a logical possibility, but it does render them implausible to the point of absurdity.

    Partially. Young-earth creationism and flat-earthism are essentially failed scientific theories. They make predictions that are not satisfied by the data. Miracles are not theories; they do not make predictions, not even in principle. You are making a category error.

    No, you are. Young-earth creationism and flat-earthism are not scientific theories. They are simply beliefs about the nature of certain events or phenomena. “Creation science” or “scientific creationism” are, or at least claim to be, scientific theories, or collections of scientific theories, but that is not the same thing. As I said, young-earth creationism and miracles, such as the physical resurrection of Christ from the dead, are absurd for the same reason: they are strongly contradicted by the evidence of science.

  113. #113 Owlmirror
    January 2, 2007

    Begging what question on miracles is a logical fallacy? You keep going on about “begging the question on miracles” without saying what question you’re referring to.

    He’s using “Begging the question” in its original formal logic sense:

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/logic.html#begging

    Of course, since the arguments for the existence of God, miracles, and the Trinity also involve multiple instances and orders of question-begging, they are all fallacious as well.

  114. #114 Caledonian
    January 2, 2007

    No, rational thinking rules out miracles completely.

    Not things beyond our understanding, or things we don’t currently know about, but things that violate the laws by which reality operates.

  115. #115 J. J. Ramsey
    January 2, 2007

    holland: “young-earth creationism and miracles, such as the physical resurrection of Christ from the dead, are absurd for the same reason: they are strongly contradicted by the evidence of science.”

    Unless we are talking about a “Last-Thursdayism” sort of young-earth creationism (YEC), one can certainly say that such things as radiometric dating, varves, the failure of flood geology to explain the data, and so on, clearly falsify YEC.

    What scientific information, though, would falsify the claim that Jesus of Nazareth physically rose from the dead? If you want to say that just about everything we know about miracle stories indicates that they are unreliable, that’s all well and good, and close enough to falsification for practical purposes. That would be using the sciences of psychology and sociology against miracles.

    If, however, you want to say that resurrection didn’t happen because dead men don’t rise, then that is begging the question. The whole point of a miracle is that it is an exception to the usual natural order. To put it another way, saying that miracles don’t happen because they violate natural law is tantamount to saying that miracles don’t happen because miracles don’t happen.

    Me: “That only follows if all coherent concepts are within human understanding, an unlikely premise to say the least.”

    holland: “Since coherence is defined by logical consistency and other concepts understandable to humans, …”

    Whether or not something is coherent or not is independent of humans’ capability to understand it. If somehow everyone magically became so retarded as to not understand math, two plus two would still equal four. You’ve conflated two different questions: first, whether something is coherent, and second, whether there is anyone around to recognize its coherency.

  116. #116 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    Unless we are talking about a “Last-Thursdayism” sort of young-earth creationism (YEC), one can certainly say that such things as radiometric dating, varves, the failure of flood geology to explain the data, and so on, clearly falsify YEC.

    Yes.

    What scientific information, though, would falsify the claim that Jesus of Nazareth physically rose from the dead?

    The scientific information from biochemistry, biology, neuroscience, etc., falsifying the belief that a 3-day-old decomposing human corpse spontaneously came back to life, whether the corpse in question is that of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, or your grandfather last night.

    If, however, you want to say that resurrection didn’t happen because dead men don’t rise, then that is begging the question.

    No, it isn’t begging the question. We have a mountain of scientific evidence that dead men don’t rise. We have no credible evidence that Jesus Christ did.

    The whole point of a miracle is that it is an exception to the usual natural order. To put it another way, saying that miracles don’t happen because they violate natural law is tantamount to saying that miracles don’t happen because miracles don’t happen.

    No, we say miracles don’t happen because we have a mountain of evidence that they don’t happen. The belief that God messed with natural law to cause Jesus to rise from the dead is an irrational assumption, just as the belief that God messed with natural law to cause the world to come into being through an act of special creation 6,000 years ago is an irrational assumption.

  117. #117 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    Whether or not something is coherent or not is independent of humans’ capability to understand it. If somehow everyone magically became so retarded as to not understand math, two plus two would still equal four. You’ve conflated two different questions: first, whether something is coherent, and second, whether there is anyone around to recognize its coherency.

    You still don’t get it. Since coherence is defined in terms of concepts understandable to humans, the notion of “coherence that we cannot understand” is meaningless. You might just as well call this notion “fljugtyf” as “coherence,” because calling it “coherence” tells us nothing about it.

  118. #118 J. J. Ramsey
    January 2, 2007

    holland: “coherence is defined in terms of concepts understandable to humans”

    No, coherence has to do with conforming to the laws of logic, which are independent of humans.

    holland: “The scientific information from biochemistry, biology, neuroscience, etc., falsifying the belief that a 3-day-old decomposing human corpse spontaneously came back to life, whether the corpse in question is that of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, or your grandfather last night.”

    All that scientific information does is tell you what would normally happen. If you simply leap from that to what must happen with no exceptions, you are skipping a step. Not even Hume made the argument you are making.

    holland: “We have no credible evidence that Jesus Christ did [resurrect].”

    True, but the reason it’s not credible has to do with an empirical fact about human testimony: Testimony about purported exceptions to natural law is far more likely to be mistaken than factual. Without that piece of the puzzle, you are just question-begging.

  119. #119 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    No, coherence has to do with conforming to the laws of logic, which are independent of humans.

    The statement of mine you’re responding to here is “Coherence is defined in terms of concepts understandable to humans.” I have no idea how the think your statement above conflicts with mine, or indeed what your statement has to do with the question in dispute at all. Can you explain why you think that referring to a property of the doctrine of the Trinity that the human mind is incapable of understanding as “coherence” is any more meaningful than referring to it as “fljugtyf?”

  120. #120 holland
    January 2, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    All that scientific information does is tell you what would normally happen.

    No, what the scientific information does is to falsify claims of the resurrection of 3-day-old human corpses. It doesn’t matter whether the resurrection is alleged to have occurred 2,000 years ago in the middle east, or last night at the local morgue. In both cases, the alleged event is scientifically impossible. Just like a 6,000-year-old earth is scientifically impossible.

    If you simply leap from that to what must happen with no exceptions …

    The belief that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, despite the mountain of scientific evidence against it, is an irrational, unjustified assumption. It has no rational or scientific basis whatsoever. It’s simply an irrational religious doctrine, like the doctrine of a young earth, or the doctrine of a massive global flood that killed everything on earth except the inhabitants of Noah’s Ark.

  121. #121 Mark C
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey wrote:

    “All that scientific information does is tell you what would normally happen.”

    holland wrote:

    “No, what the scientific information does is to falsify claims of the resurrection of 3-day-old human corpses. It doesn’t matter whether the resurrection is alleged to have occurred 2,000 years ago in the middle east, or last night at the local morgue. In both cases, the alleged event is scientifically impossible. Just like a 6,000-year-old earth is scientifically impossible.”

    In discussing whether something can be falsified, we have to have a hypothesis to test. Resurrection doesn’t even meet that criterion because one can’t even prove it happened. How can I devise a test to prove or disprove the resurrection because I don’t even know if it actually happened? You might as well ask me to decode the genome of a unicorn.

    At some point you are asking for faith. No matter how you dress up the argument with words like “rationality” and “coherence” at some point I must abandon the rational mind to accept the trinity or the resurrection. The further insistence that my tiny mind is incapable of understanding these concepts, and I must therefore accept the word of some “expert” to tell me how to think, pray, kneel, and live is not something that a rational mind is prepared to do.

  122. #122 holland
    January 3, 2007

    Mark C,

    The hypothesis is that a human corpse that had been rotting in the desert for 72 hours came back to life. That hypothesis is testable using the methods of science. It fails the test. It violates numerous laws and principles of biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, etc. As you say, the belief that the hypothesis is true is simply irrational.

    J.J.Ramsey seems to be invested in the notion that belief in the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Resurrection is in some sense reasonable and defensible. I’m not sure how seriously he really takes these doctrines, but he clearly seems motivated to argue that they have some measure of intellectual respectability.

  123. #123 J. J. Ramsey
    January 3, 2007

    holland: “Can you explain why you think that referring to a property of the doctrine of the Trinity that the human mind is incapable of understanding as “coherence” is any more meaningful than referring to it as ‘fljugtyf?’”

    I don’t know about you, but I’m using “coherent” as a synonym for “logically possible.” You seem to be trying to argue that any concept that is purportedly not completely within human understanding must be logically impossible.

    holland: “The hypothesis is that a human corpse that had been rotting in the desert for 72 hours came back to life.”

    This much is about correct, but it is incomplete. The hypothesis is that a human corpse came back to life after three days because something intervened to suspend the natural order of things. If all you do is point out that it is not the natural order of things for a dead man to rise, the obvious response of the theist is “Duh! We know that, too. That’s why we call it a miracle in the first place.” This is why pointing to natural law is not enough.

  124. #124 holland
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    I don’t know about you, but I’m using “coherent” as a synonym for “logically possible.” You seem to be trying to argue that any concept that is purportedly not completely within human understanding must be logically impossible.

    No, I’m arguing that the notion that the Trinity, or anything else, is coherent (or, if you prefer, “logically possible”) in a way that human minds are incapable of understanding is meaningless. What is the phrase “logically possible in a way we cannot understand” supposed to mean? If we literally can’t understand it, how can the words “logically possible” convey anything about its meaning?

  125. #125 holland
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    The hypothesis is that a human corpse came back to life after three days because something intervened to suspend the natural order of things. If all you do is point out that it is not the natural order of things for a dead man to rise, the obvious response of the theist is “Duh! We know that, too. That’s why we call it a miracle in the first place.” This is why pointing to natural law is not enough.

    Then pointing to natural law is “not enough” to oppose young-earth creationism either, since that hypothesis also involves supernatural intervention. And yet you apparently believe you are justified in strongly rejecting YEC because it fails the tests of science. You can’t have it both ways. Either you accept that empirical claims (e.g., the resurrection of dead bodies, the age of the earth) can be tested using science and reason or you don’t. Which is it? If you wave your hand and declare that claims of empirical events with supernatural causes are not subject to the tests of science then you have no basis for rejecting any such claim on the grounds that it is inconsistent with scientific evidence.

    Your irrational assumption that there is a God who “suspended the natural order of things” to cause Jesus Christ to rise from the dead is no more justified than the irrational assumption that there is a God who “suspended the natural order of things” to create the Earth in a few days 6,000 years ago.

  126. #126 J. J. Ramsey
    January 3, 2007

    holland: “What is the phrase ‘logically possible in a way we cannot understand’ supposed to mean?”

    It is necessary that something be logically possible in order to exist. It is not necessary for something to be humanly comprehensible in order to exist. Therefore, things that are not humanly comprehensible may nonetheless be logically possible. Therefore, you cannot say that because something is not humanly comprehensible, it must be logically impossible. This is true whether or not you are talking about the Trinity or some mystical New Age doctrine.

    holland: “Then pointing to natural law is ‘not enough’ to oppose young-earth creationism either, since that hypothesis also involves supernatural intervention.”

    If young-earth creationists tried to argue that God miraculously went out of his way to make the earth look old, then yes, you would be right. This, though, is not what they tend to do. You are conflating two different kinds of claims:

    * A miracle happened, but the only evidence is human testimony.
    * A miracle happened, and it left behind material evidence that can be examined after the fact.

    The purported resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the first kind of claim, while young-earth creationism is the second.

    holland: “Your irrational assumption that there is a God who “suspended the natural order of things” to cause Jesus Christ to rise from the dead”

    Ahem, my assumption? Don’t assume that an objection to bad arguments against X is an argument for X.

  127. #127 Greg Byshenk
    January 3, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    The Trinity is supposed to be beyond human understanding,
    but the writings about it are obviously not, since they were written by
    human beings. In principle, Dawkins can slog through the various writings
    on the concept of the Trinity and hunt down whatever contradiction(s)
    there may be in the concept.

    Of course Dawkins — or anyone else — could “slog through the
    various writings on the concept of the Trinity” — but what would be the
    point, other than to waste time, given that the conclusion is already
    known? As I already noted: “The concept is incoherent on its face, the
    Church recognizes that it is incoherent, and indeed you yourself admit
    that it is incoherent.” And, as others have already pointed out, you
    don’t get to redefine ‘coherent’ to suit your purposes: if something is
    incoherent to human beings, then it is in fact incoherent (based on the
    meaning of the word to human beings).

    Note: this is not so say that there may be things that appear
    incoherent (now), but are not actually so, and may be shown to be coherent
    at some point in the future. But a) even if you suppose such to be the
    case for “the Trinity”, that provides no reason to waste one’s time
    slogging through volumes of speculation only to arrive where one started;
    and b) even this option is closed to you, as you have claimed that the
    supposed concept is supposed as beyond human understanding; that is,
    you have posited it as incoherent to human beings.

    there is nothing about the word “godhead” that would imply
    that it cannot be a combination of three things…

    Be careful. I did not claim that “one godhead” and “three persons” are
    in and of themselves incoherent; only that one doesn’t create coherence or
    understanding by finding more and more obscure terminology to mask the
    basic incoherence of one’s supposed concept. Indeed, there isn’t
    anything necessarily incoherent about “one god” being made up of “three
    things”. One could easily have three sub-entitites (demigods perhaps) who
    become ‘god’ when they place their magic rings together — or three ‘gods’
    who come together to become ‘mega-god’. But it is only a single step
    further to incoherence. The dogma of the trinity supposes that there are
    three separate entities, each of which is fully ‘god’ — but yet,
    when they are separated (as at least the Father and the Son must have been
    in order for the Gospels to make any sense), are not separately
    gods.

    But, still, what is the point? Everyone, including the church,
    recognizes that all attempts to make the supposed concept of the Trinity
    coherent have been an abject failure. Why must one bother to rehash the
    arguments that are admitted to be failures even by those who defend the
    concept?

    Indeed, when faced with someone who says, “yes, I admit that it is
    nonsense, but I assert it nonetheless,” it is at least arguable that
    ridicule is the appropriate response.

  128. #128 holland
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    You’re still totally confused. I didn’t say that “because something is not humanly comprehensible, it must be logically impossible.” The dispute concerns the meaning of the term “logically possible” (or “coherence,” or whatever other word you wish to use) when used to refer to some postulated quality or property of the Trinity that is not humanly comprehensible. What can this possibly MEAN? It cannot mean logically possible as we understand that term, because your premise is that the property is incomprehensible to us. You’re not communicating anything meaningful about it by calling it “logically possible.” It’s just gibberish.

  129. #129 holland
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    If young-earth creationists tried to argue that God miraculously went out of his way to make the earth look old, then yes, you would be right.

    No, they wouldn’t have to argue that God “miraculously went out of his way to make the earth look old.” They wouldn’t have to argue anything whatsoever about God’s intent. If the irrational assumption that God suspended or modified the laws of nature to cause the Resurrection is justified, why isn’t the irrational assumption that God suspended or modified the laws of nature to cause a young earth also justified? Neither assumption involves any claim about God’s motives or intent.

    Do you in fact believe that either irrational assumption is justified or not? If you do, on what grounds do you claim it is justified?

  130. #130 Owlmirror
    January 3, 2007

    A miracle happened, but the only evidence is human testimony.

    Yet this claim, in itself, assumes its own conclusion.

    All that’s necessary to refute it is to point out that logical fallacy.

    There’s additional contradictory logic in Christian theology, but why isn’t stopping right there sufficient?

  131. #131 Robert O'Brien
    January 3, 2007

    The hypothesis is that a human corpse that had been rotting in the desert for 72 hours came back to life. That hypothesis is testable using the methods of science. It fails the test. It violates numerous laws and principles of biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, etc. As you say, the belief that the hypothesis is true is simply irrational.

    Nonsense. The “hypothesis” is not that a corpse spontaneously arose from the dead, but that God raised him from the dead; your understanding of science is sophomoric.

  132. #132 Robert O'Brien
    January 3, 2007

    No, rational thinking rules out miracles completely.

    Wrong, as usual.

  133. #133 holland
    January 3, 2007

    Robert O’Brien,

    The “hypothesis” is not that a corpse spontaneously arose from the dead

    I didn’t say “spontaneously.” I understand that you’re assuming God caused it to happen. Why is the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead justified?

  134. #134 J. J. Ramsey
    January 3, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “As I already noted: ‘The concept is incoherent on its face, the Church recognizes that it is incoherent, and indeed you yourself admit that it is incoherent.’”

    I’d say that it’s a stretch to say that the Church admitted that it was incoherent. I didn’t admit it was incoherent, either. All I said is that was hairy at best, and I didn’t care if it was incoherent.

    I also have a mild distrust for making a judgment of something “on its face.” This is also why I’m leery of someone complaining that the Trinity is obviously contradictory; it smacks of a superficial judgment.

    Greg Byshenk: “And, as others have already pointed out, you don’t get to redefine ‘coherent’ to suit your purposes”

    When you were originally using the term “coherent,” the context made it pretty clear that you were using it in the sense of “logically possible,” i.e. not self-contradictory. I have continued to use it in that sense. It is holland who used “coherent” in a different way.

    Greg Byshenk: “But it is only a single step further to incoherence. The dogma of the trinity supposes that there are three separate entities, each of which is fully ‘god’ — but yet, when they are separated (as at least the Father and the Son must have been in order for the Gospels to make any sense), are not separately gods.”

    And anyone who wants to do an intellectually responsible critique of the Trinity will want to consult commentaries, etc., in order to make sure that this first blush judgment holds, especially since there are questions like “In what sense are they separated?” that the initial judgment leaves open.

  135. #135 J. J. Ramsey
    January 3, 2007

    “They wouldn’t have to argue anything whatsoever about God’s intent. If the irrational assumption that God suspended or modified the laws of nature to cause the Resurrection is justified, why isn’t the irrational assumption that God suspended or modified the laws of nature to cause a young earth also justified?”

    Neither claim is justified, but the problems that each claim entails are radically different. You appear to want to make the following arguments:

    1) Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead because rising from the dead would violate natural law.

    2) God did not create a young earth because that very act of creation would violate natural law.

    I am not sure if this is really what you want to say, but it is the only way I can think of to make the two claims parallel. Unfortunately, it also makes them question-begging.

    Notice that nowhere do scientists argue against a young earth on the grounds that this act itself would violate natural law. Instead, they argue that this act would make certain predictions. Radioactive clocks would indicate a young earth, for example. Certain geological phenomena would be or not be present. These predictions do not obtain, so a the hypothesis of a young earth is falsified.

    I have already dealt with the real problems of the Resurrection claim above, so I won’t repeat them.

  136. #136 Owlmirror
    January 3, 2007

    Notice that nowhere do scientists argue against a young earth on the grounds that this act itself would violate natural law. Instead, they argue that this act would make certain predictions. Radioactive clocks would indicate a young earth, for example. Certain geological phenomena would be or not be present.

    Not to mention astronomical and astrophysical phenomena.

    These predictions do not obtain, so a the hypothesis of a young earth is falsified.

    Yet the scientific phenomena follow from natural laws; the assertion that the Earth is ~6000 years old despite the observed scientific phenomena is in contradiction to the observed phenomena, or in other words, in violation of natural laws.

  137. #137 holland
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    Neither claim is justified,

    Finally. So belief in the Resurrection is not justified. Thank you for finally admitting it.

    but the problems that each claim entails are radically different.

    No, they’re not. The basic problem for both claims is that they rest on unjustified assumptions. You just conceded that they both rest on unjustified assumptions.

    Notice that nowhere do scientists argue against a young earth on the grounds that this act itself would violate natural law.

    Scientists don’t usually use phrases like “violate natural law” in their professional work. What a scientist would be more likely to say about both the claim that the earth is young and the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is that these claims are inconsistent with the scientific evidence.

    Instead, they argue that this act would make certain predictions.

    No, they don’t argue that. “Acts” don’t make predictions. What you seem to be referring to here is not “acts,” but pseudoscientific theories formulated for the purpose of reconciling young earth creationism with science. Such theories fail because they’re bad science. But belief in YECism and belief in the Resurrection are both unjustified regardless of attempts to reconcile them with science, for the reason I have explained at length and that you just agreed with.

    You seem to think YECism is synonymous with “creation science” or “scientific creationism.” It isn’t. Belief in a young earth is a religious doctrine, just like belief in the Resurrection. In western nations it is primarily associated with the religion of Christianity, just like belief in the Resurrection. It is based on an understanding of the Christian scriptures, just like belief in the Resurrection. “Creation science,” on the other hand, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is mostly a response to the legal and public policy defeats Christian creationists have suffered in American courts and legislatures over the past few decades.

  138. #138 Owlmirror
    January 3, 2007

    And the Jesus-resurrection and YEC are similar because they both involve unquestioned assertions about God’s existence and powers: God can do anything, even create a universe 6000 years ago that appears to be ~15 billion years old.
    Similarly: God can do anything, even make a dead man come back to life.

    Of course, even Christians find this confusing, hence all of the bickering over “homoousios” and “homoiousios”, and the various schisms and heresies, and the use of the word ‘mystery’ as a bandage to cover over any apparent contradictions, and so on and on and on.

    And come to think of it, ‘mystery’ was previously used in the various popular pre-christian cults. Should we not dismiss Isis and Orpheus and Apollo and Mithras because they also had their ‘mysteries’? And should Sc*ent*l*gy be accepted because the story of Xen* and the clams is a ‘mystery’?

    I agree with Dawkins that all kids should be taught the deep and detailed history of religion just so that they damn well know how all of these insane arguments arise. And how often religious conflicts are tied to very worldly politics.

  139. #139 Robert O'Brien
    January 3, 2007

    Why is the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead justified?

    Now, that, is a legitimate approach to the issue.

  140. #140 J. J. Ramsey
    January 3, 2007

    holland: “So belief in the Resurrection is not justified. Thank you for finally admitting it.”

    Finally?! What do you mean, finally? That’s been implied in more than one of my earlier posts.

    holland: “‘Acts’ don’t make predictions.”

    Fair point. That was ill-phrased. Theories make predictions, and acts have consequences. The consequences of a 6,000 year old earth would be radioactive clocks would indicate a young earth, and so on. We see just the opposite of these consequences, so YEC is falsified.

    Owlmirror: “the assertion that the Earth is ~6000 years old despite the observed scientific phenomena is in contradiction to the observed phenomena, or in other words, in violation of natural laws.”

    “Contradiction to the observed phenomena” is the same as “violation of natural laws”? Let’s follow this reasoning out.

    1) Someone claims that Professor M is in his office.
    2) His office is locked, and no light appears under the door’s threshold. Knocking on the door yields no answer.
    3) The claim that Prof. M is in his office is in contradiction to the observed phenomena, e.g. the locked door, etc.
    4) The claim that Prof. M is in his office is in violation of natural laws.

    I think we can agree that step 4 is silly.

  141. #141 Owlmirror
    January 3, 2007

    I think we can agree that step 4 is silly.

    Argument by analogy is always prone to being twisted like that.

    If we extend the number of observations such that:

    2a) noting that the office hours for Prof M. are such that he would not be in the office
    2b) shining a flashlight under the door and looking underneath shows no Prof M.
    2c) getting the janitor to open the door and looking inside shows no Prof M.
    2d) extending the search to all possible hiding places (under desk, behind door, inside cabinets) shows no Prof M.

    Step 4 stops looking so silly, eh? Although I would be willing to concede that the statement could be qualified by “known natural laws”.

    And if the one making the claim in step (1) starts making bizarre additional claims, such that Prof. M can become intangible at will, well, I think we can agree that that is silly.

  142. #142 holland
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    Finally?! What do you mean, finally? That’s been implied in more than one of my earlier posts.

    Not that I can see. You’d been consistently evasive about it, attempting to make qualitative distinctions between the Resurrection and young earth creationism to imply that belief in the former is in some sense reasonable. All that guff about it being an “exception” to natural law and so on.

    I think we can agree that step 4 is silly.

    Well, perhaps everyone but you could agree that this latest attempt of yours at a “gotcha!” is as silly as usual. I think it’s clear in context that by “observed phenomena” Owlmirror meant a comprehensive set of observations from which the nature of the laws governing the phenomena may be inferred, not a single observation of an everyday occurrence that is obviously not in violation of known natural laws.

  143. #143 J. J. Ramsey
    January 3, 2007

    holland: “You’d been consistently evasive about it, attempting to make qualitative distinctions between the Resurrection and young earth creationism to imply that belief in the former is in some sense reasonable.”

    You are half-correct. I most certainly would agree that the way in which one would show that the Resurrection is implausible is qualitatively different than the way that young earth creationism is implausible. None of that shows that either proposition is reasonable if one has the proper facts in one’s possession.

  144. #144 holland
    January 3, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    You’re not “agreeing,” since no one else has expressed that view. As I said, the Resurrection and young earth creationism have been shown to be wildly implausible in the same way: through science. All religious claims of natural phenomena are testable using the methods of science.

  145. #145 tomh
    January 4, 2007

    holland wrote, in answer to Robert O’Brien:
    I understand that you’re assuming God caused it to happen. Why is the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead justified?

    He has stated many times that it is justified because he believes it. Anyone who argues with the idiot O’Brien has way too much time on his hands.

  146. #146 Robert O'Brien
    January 4, 2007

    He has stated many times that it is justified because he believes it. Anyone who argues with the idiot O’Brien has way too much time on his hands.

    Thus saith the totalitarian, manure-covered yokel who favors legislation forbidding parents from raising their children in a religious tradition.

  147. #147 Owlmirror
    January 4, 2007

    None of that shows that either proposition is reasonable if one has the proper facts in one’s possession.

    Wait, what? Are you doing a 180¬į turn here?

  148. #148 J. J. Ramsey
    January 4, 2007

    holland: “Owlmirror meant a comprehensive set of observations from which the nature of the laws governing the phenomena may be inferred”

    This contradicts what Owlmirror actually said: “the assertion that the Earth is ~6000 years old despite the observed scientific phenomena is in contradiction to the observed phenomena.”

    In this case, the observed phenomena have to be the results from radioactive dating, varves, and so on. If you go to a site like TalkOrigins.org, those are the sorts of things that are pointed out to show that a young earth is implausible. However, the observed phenomena that you are talking about, “a comprehensive set of observations from which the nature of the laws governing the phenomena may be inferred,” would describe the phenomena that establish the rates of decay of various radioactive materials, the processes of erosion, and so on. These in and of themselves do not disprove YEC, and indeed YEC itself does not imply that the rates of decay of various radioactive materials, the processes of erosion, etc., would be any different. What YEC in and of itself implies is if one were to apply the knowledge about rates of radioactive decay, etc., to determine the age of the earth, then the results would lead to dates of ~6000 years. Of course, we do not see such a result. In short, there are two sets of observed phenomena that are being confused:

    * the observed phenomena that establish the methods of dating
    * the observed phenomena that are the results of applying the methods of dating.

    The former set of observed phenomena does not conflict with YEC. Only the latter set does that.

    Of course, since the methods of dating do not lead to the results that the YECers want, they try to explain them away by ad hoc hypotheses that were not part of the original claim that the earth is young. That is a separate issue, however.

    Owlmirror: “Step 4 stops looking so silly, eh?”

    No, step 4 is still silly. No matter how many observed phenomena you list in step 2, substituting “in violation of natural laws” for “contradiction to the observed phenomena” still leads to the same absurdity. Essentially, you are relying on the confusion of two sets of observed phenomena, one used to establish natural laws and one that shows the results of applying them.

  149. #149 Owlmirror
    January 4, 2007

    Essentially, you are relying on the confusion of two sets of observed phenomena, one used to establish natural laws and one that shows the results of applying them.

    Yet the original context was about the YEC and the Resurrection, which are both asserted to be miracles by those who assert that both happened.

    Is it not the case that a miracle is defined as a violation of natural laws?

    I suppose that a naturalistic religionist might argue that since there is evidence for a 15-billion year old universe, that’s what really happened, and that the “resurrection” is also explicable in naturalistic terms (that is, Jesus did not literally die, but fell into a trance/coma that lasted 3 days, which was misinterpreted as death by naive observers).

    However, naturalistic and non-fundamentalist religion is not what is under discussion; the theology that Dawkins was supposed to consider insists that certain specific events and doctrines were and are miraculous.

  150. #150 Greg Byshenk
    January 4, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    I’d say that it’s a stretch to say that the Church admitted
    that it was incoherent. I didn’t admit it was incoherent, either. All I
    said is that was hairy at best, and I didn’t care if it was
    incoherent.

    It is no stretch at all. The church retreats to the claim of “mystery”
    because it cannot explain how the dogma of the trinity can be coherent.
    You admit that it is incoherent when you assert that it is “beyond human
    understanding”. And pretending that it is incoherent to us, while being
    somehow magically coherent in some other way that is “beyon human
    understanding” is a silly dodge that reduces almost immediately to
    absurdity. Again: I don’t get to postulate a ’roundsquare’ that is
    ’round’ (in some special way that is beyond human understanding) while
    also being ‘square’ (in some special way that is beyond human understanding)
    and is therefore coherent (in some special way that is beyond human
    understanding). Were I to attempt such a thing, the best that could be
    said was that I don’t understand what ‘coherent’ and ‘incoherent’ mean.

    And this is the sort of thing I mean when I say that “you don’t get to
    redefine ‘coherent’ to suit your purposes”.

    And anyone who wants to do an intellectually responsible
    critique of the Trinity will want to consult commentaries, etc., in order
    to make sure that this first blush judgment holds,…

    This would be true — were the matter an open question. But it is
    not
    . After 2000 years and many tens of thousands of pages of
    “commentaries, etc.”, the conclusion of the church itself is: “we can’t
    come up with any understanding of it as coherent, either.” All of the
    attempts in the “commentaries, etc.” are proven non-starters. Thus,
    while they might be of historical interest to some, consulting them for
    enlightenment as to some supposed coherence to the dogma of the trinity
    is purely a waste of time and effort.

  151. #151 J. J. Ramsey
    January 4, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “And pretending that it is incoherent to us, while being somehow magically coherent in some other way that is ‘beyon human understanding’ is a silly dodge that reduces almost immediately to absurdity.”

    Nonsense. All it means to say that X is a concept that is coherent but beyond human understanding is that no human is smart enough to see the coherency, but a sufficiently smart thinker would.

    Greg Byshenk: “I don’t get to postulate a ’roundsquare’ …”

    You already indicated that this analogy was problematic when you wrote earlier, “I did not claim that “one godhead” and “three persons” are in and of themselves incoherent.”

    Greg Byshenk: “After 2000 years and many tens of thousands of pages of ‘commentaries, etc.’, the conclusion of the church itself is: ‘we can’t come up with any understanding of it as coherent, either.’”

    What a gross misrepresentation of church history.

  152. #152 holland
    January 4, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    This is probably a hopeless cause, but I’ll try one last time. The claim that something could be “coherent but beyond human understanding [because] no human is smart enough to see the coherency” is MEANINGLESS. It’s not true or false, it’s gibberish. Coherence is a concept humans can understand. So whatever postulated property you’re referring to that we cannot understand, it cannot be coherence. It must be something else. You’re not saying anything meaningful about it by using the word “coherence” to refer to it. You might just as well call it “color” or “humor” or “temperature” or “hyfrjdaaaaatf.” I don’t know how to explain this to you any more clearly.

  153. #153 Owlmirror
    January 4, 2007

    All it means to say that X is a concept that is coherent but beyond human understanding is that no human is smart enough to see the coherency, but a sufficiently smart thinker would.

    Which begs the question.

    Really, one could say the exact same thing for the roundsquare, or a purple-cucumber-cat, or any other silly thing.

    Greg Byshenk: “After 2000 years and many tens of thousands of pages of ‘commentaries, etc.’, the conclusion of the church itself is: ‘we can’t come up with any understanding of it as coherent, either.’”

    What a gross misrepresentation of church history.

    Not gross, not a misrepresentation. That’s pretty much a summary of that paragraph from the Catholic encyclopedia on the Trinity, and it’s their official position on “mysteries”.

    In fact, they even say that it is an error to say that the Trinity can be understood by reason.

    (More citations from the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Trinity.)

    The Vatican Council has explained the meaning to be attributed to the term mystery in theology. It lays down that a mystery is a truth which we are not merely incapable of discovering apart from Divine Revelation, but which, even when revealed, remains “hidden by the veil of faith and enveloped, so to speak, by a kind of darkness” (Const., “De fide. cath.”, iv). [...] All theologians admit that the doctrine of the Trinity is of the number of these. Indeed, of all revealed truths this is the most impenetrable to reason. Hence, to declare this to be no mystery would be a virtual denial of the canon in question. [...] St. Jerome says, in a well-known phrase: “The true profession of the mystery of the Trinity is to own that we do not comprehend it” (De mysterio Trinitatus recta confessio est ignoratio scientiae — “Proem ad 1. xviii in Isai.”).

    Of course, ‘mystery’ itself is an incoherent and question-begging term.

  154. #154 AJS
    January 4, 2007

    @Robert O’Brien: Raising children (who are too young to know the difference between mythology and fact) in a religious tradition is, purely and simply, child abuse; and deserves no less contempt than any other form of child abuse.

    Changing the subject, something else I was reading earlier elsewhere today suggested that some of the great scientists before Darwin (Newton, Galileo et al) were Christians. That, of course, is an appeal to emotion — in this case, the idea that long-held beliefs are truer than newer ideas.

    Surely, before Darwin or anyone ever proposed a credible theory that seemed to explain everything well enough not to require for there to be a God, that was just the prevailing idea of the times? Because even if Evolutionary Biology doesn’t rule out the existence of a creator God, it certainly rules in the possibility that there is no such being.

    Also, we shouldn’t forget that the Church had a massive influence in those days, and exercised total control over Academia. You couldn’t get into University at all unless you studied Divinity. Who knows what ideas were missed simply because someone was prevented by the Church from working on them?

    My point is that it would have been a lot harder to be an atheist and a scientist in those days. I also have a feeling that Newton, Galileo, Kepler and friends might have held views about certain social issues (women, slavery and so forth) that would not be considered at all Politically Correct today. Does that necessarily invalidate all their work?

  155. #155 AJS
    January 4, 2007

    As for the hypothetical “roundsquare”, consider a cylinder whose height and diameter are equal. What shape are the shadows it casts when held end-on and side-on, respectively, to a beam of light?

    Some would call anything which cannot be understood by reason “nonsense”. They are the polite ones.

  156. #156 Greg Byshenk
    January 4, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    All it means to say that X is a concept that is coherent but
    beyond human understanding is that no human is smart enough to see the
    coherency, but a sufficiently smart thinker would.

    And all that is means to say that ’roundsquare’ is a concept that is
    coherent but beyond human understanding is that no human is smart enough
    to see the coherency, but a sufficiently smart thinker would. As I said,
    this “argument” reduces almost immediately to absurdity.

    After 2000 years and many tens of thousands of pages of
    ‘commentaries, etc.’, the conclusion of the church itself is: ‘we can’t
    come up with any understanding of it as coherent, either.’

    What a gross misrepresentation of church history.

    It isn’t anything about “church history”. As I noted previously,
    the discussions of the theologians may be interesting as a historical
    matter, but are of no bearing on the matter of whether the dogma of the
    trinity is coherent or not — because the question is closed. And
    while my statement was perhaps somewhat glib, it is not a
    “misrepresentation” of the church’s position (as Owlmirror has illustrated).

  157. #157 J. J. Ramsey
    January 4, 2007

    holland: “The claim that something could be ‘coherent but beyond human understanding [because] no human is smart enough to see the coherency’ is MEANINGLESS.”

    I noticed a slight of hand there; one obvious change is replacing “but” with “because.”

    You and Owlmirror seem to be conflating two related but different ideas:

    1) Whether it is possible in principle for something to be understood by a hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner.

    2) Whether it is possible for something to be understood by the reasoners that happen to be in existence.

    One might liken this to another pair of ideas:

    1) Whether it is possible in principle for something to be destroyed by a hypothetical agent with sufficient power.

    2) Whether it is possible for something to be destroyed by the agents that happen to be in existence.

    A piece of granite does not become indestructible simply by virtue of nobody being around with a good chisel.

    Owlmirror: “In fact, they even say that it is an error to say that the Trinity can be understood by reason.”

    I’d say that your interpretation of church doctrines is based in a confusion of ideas (1) and (2) above.

    Greg Byshenk: “the discussions of the theologians may be interesting as a historical matter, but are of no bearing on the matter of whether the dogma of the trinity is coherent or not — because the question is closed.”

    You only called it closed based on the conflations of ideas (1) and (2) above.

  158. #158 Robert O'Brien
    January 4, 2007

    @Robert O’Brien: Raising children (who are too young to know the difference between mythology and fact) in a religious tradition is, purely and simply, child abuse; and deserves no less contempt than any other form of child abuse.

    That is, purely and simply, nonsense. (As well as an affront to those who have actually suffered from child abuse.) If you and tomh (and Dawkins) are going to share a brain, then at least get one that works.

  159. #159 Owlmirror
    January 4, 2007

    1) Whether it is possible in principle for something to be understood by a hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner.

    Which brings us back around again to the complete absence of any evidence for any “hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner”. Since the “something to be understood” is about the “hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner” in the first place, this is still begging the question.

  160. #160 J. J. Ramsey
    January 4, 2007

    Me: “1) Whether it is possible in principle for something to be understood by a hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner.”

    Owlmirror: “Which brings us back around again to the complete absence of any evidence for any ‘hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner’.”

    Owlmirror, there is a reason that it is a hypothetical reasoner. The issue is whether such a reasoner can exist in principle, not whether one happens to exist.

    Owlmirror: “Since the ‘something to be understood’ is about the ‘hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner’ in the first place”

    This is no more true than saying that the piece of granite I mentioned above is about the chisel.

  161. #161 Owlmirror
    January 4, 2007

    Owlmirror, there is a reason that it is a hypothetical reasoner. The issue is whether such a reasoner can exist in principle, not whether one happens to exist.

    But since the issue under discussion is incomprehensible to all known reasoners, you still have no basis for concluding that it is possible for this hypothetical reasoner to exist.

    Owlmirror: “Since the ‘something to be understood’ is about the ‘hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner’ in the first place”

    This is no more true than saying that the piece of granite I mentioned above is about the chisel.

    So the Trinity is not about the nature of God? I think most Christians would dispute with you over that.

  162. #162 Caledonian
    January 4, 2007

    The issue is not whether a thing is knowable, but whether we can know it to be knowable – or unknowable.

    What justifies the assertion that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be understood? How can we test possible explanations to see whether we have in fact understood the doctrine? What tests are applied by the people who claim the doctrine cannot be understood – more importantly, what tests are applied by those who claim it isn’t understood presently?

  163. #163 J. J. Ramsey
    January 4, 2007

    Owlmirror: “But since the issue under discussion is incomprehensible to all known reasoners, you still have no basis for concluding that it is possible for this hypothetical reasoner to exist.”

    I’d disagree. It is very clear that we ourselves understand concepts that are, as far as we can tell, incomprehensible to, for example, the retarded. Given there are those who reason worse than we do, and that we have no reason to believe that our own reasoning capability is some pinnacle or upper limit, it is plausible that a reasoner smarter than us, even much smarter than us, could exist. Whether such a reasoner does exist is another story altogether. In principle, though, one likely could.

    Caledonian: “The issue is not whether a thing is knowable, but whether we can know it to be knowable – or unknowable.”

    Indeed.

    Caledonian: “What justifies the assertion that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be understood?”

    Good question. Quite possibly nothing at all.

    Caledonian: “How can we test possible explanations to see whether we have in fact understood the doctrine?”

    Brute force, IMHO, seems to be the only way to do it.

    If one sticks to judging the Trinity based on a brief summary of it, one opens oneself to the charge that one has judged a strawman, since a Christian may consider the summary to be an inevitably imperfect description. If one has done a survey of the relevant works, and has laid out everything they have in common, then one is less immune to the charge of a strawman. I see three possibilities:

    1) When all the subtleties of the relevant works are taken into account, a clear picture emerges of the aspects of the Trinity that are humanly comprehensible, and we can judge that in spite of the impossibilities of our imagining the relationships between these aspects, such relationships are logically possible.

    2) A clear picture emerges of what the Trinity is supposed to be, and it is clear that, even with all the subtleties taken into account, there are one or more contradictions. The Trinity can then be safely categorized as a “round square.”

    3) There is not enough agreement across theologians as to what the Trinity is supposed to mean. In such a case, the Trinity is technically irrefutable, but only because it is too ambiguous to decisively refute. See Sastra’s comment.

    My money’s on the third possibility.

  164. #164 J. J. Ramsey
    January 4, 2007

    Owlmirror: “Since the ‘something to be understood’ is about the ‘hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner’ in the first place”

    Me: “This is no more true than saying that the piece of granite I mentioned above is about the chisel.”

    Owlmirror: “So the Trinity is not about the nature of God? I think most Christians would dispute with you over that.”

    Why are you likening “the nature of God” to a chisel for granite? No one said that the “hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner” was God.

  165. #165 Mondo
    January 5, 2007

    “if refuting the Trinity was really that simple, he should have done it in TGB.”

    No, he shouldn’t. It would be like “refuting” the Trinity of the Tooth Fairy.

    Thread should have been over right there.

  166. #166 Owlmirror
    January 5, 2007

    Owlmirror: “But since the issue under discussion is incomprehensible to all known reasoners, you still have no basis for concluding that it is possible for this hypothetical reasoner to exist.”

    I’d disagree. It is very clear that we ourselves understand concepts that are, as far as we can tell, incomprehensible to, for example, the retarded. Given there are those who reason worse than we do, and that we have no reason to believe that our own reasoning capability is some pinnacle or upper limit, it is plausible that a reasoner smarter than us, even much smarter than us, could exist. Whether such a reasoner does exist is another story altogether. In principle, though, one likely could.

    Now you’re the one who is confusing things – specifically, the general idea of being smarter than us with the implication that it is therefore possible to be smarter than us about the supernatural. Since there is no evidence that miracles and other supernatural events occur, your conclusion is based on a false premise.

    It is totally irrelevant how smart someone is, in this case. If there is no data whatsoever, even someone smarter than all of humanity put together cannot reach any conclusions or better understanding.

    3) There is not enough agreement across theologians as to what the Trinity is supposed to mean. In such a case, the Trinity is technically irrefutable, but only because it is too ambiguous to decisively refute. See Sastra’s comment.

    My money’s on the third possibility.

    Since all of the theologians are arguing from the same lack of data, their agreement is meaningless. The simplest explanation is therefore the most likely, in that the “subtleties” are also meaningless, and the glaring contradiction of “one” being equal to “three” and yet not equal to “three” lets the idea be rejected for the nonsense that it is.

  167. #167 AJS
    January 5, 2007

    @Robert O’Brien:

    [my comment that raising children in a religious tradition is child abuse] is, purely and simply, nonsense. (As well as an affront to those who have actually suffered from child abuse.) If you and tomh (and Dawkins) are going to share a brain, then at least get one that works.

    How do you consider the practice of inducing psychosis in children by repeatedly lying to them to be anything other than abuse? And how is this form of abuse any less evil than other forms of abuse?

  168. #168 J. J. Ramsey
    January 5, 2007

    Owlmirror: “It is totally irrelevant how smart someone is, in this case. If there is no data whatsoever, even someone smarter than all of humanity put together cannot reach any conclusions or better understanding.”

    We were not talking about whether “even someone smarter than all of humanity put together” could reach empirical conclusions about the outside world, but rather whether this hypothetical super-smart person could understand ideas that we could not.

    Owlmirror: “the glaring contradiction of “one” being equal to “three” and yet not equal to “three” lets the idea be rejected for the nonsense that it is.”

    I repeat, “If one sticks to judging the Trinity based on a brief summary of it, one opens oneself to the charge that one has judged a strawman, since a Christian may consider the summary to be an inevitably imperfect description.”

  169. #169 Greg Byshenk
    January 5, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    You and Owlmirror seem to be conflating two related but
    different ideas:

    1) Whether it is possible in principle for something to be understood
    by a hypothetical sufficiently capable reasoner.

    2) Whether it is possible for something to be understood by the
    reasoners that happen to be in existence.

    One might liken this to another pair of ideas:

    1) Whether it is possible in principle for something to be destroyed by
    a hypothetical agent with sufficient power.

    2) Whether it is possible for something to be destroyed by the agents
    that happen to be in existence.

    A piece of granite does not become indestructible simply by virtue of
    nobody being around with a good chisel.

    One “might liken” in such a way, but one would be reasoning badly.
    Indeed, such is begging the question. If something cannot be comprehended
    by any known agent, then it is (at least so far as we have any way of
    determining it) incomprehensible; if something cannot be destroyed by any
    known agent, then it is (at least so far as we have any way of determining
    it) indestructible. You are attempting to sneak in extra information that
    cannot legitimately be included, just as in the “watchmaker” argument for
    design. That is, in the case of “finding a watch on the beach”, we already
    know that watches are designed, and therefore the argument begs the question.
    Your “argument” assumes that an agent that can destroy the granite is known,
    and therefore also begs the question — because there is no known agent that
    can comprehend the trinity. And we see (as in my second sentence) that when
    the “problem” is stated in a non-question-begging manner, the distinction
    you are trying to draw vanishes.

    “But,” you may say, “is it really incomprehensible?” Unfortunately,
    the question is vacuous, as it is in principle unanswerable, based on
    the premises you are defending. Could there be some “uber-comprehender”
    capable of comprehending all that we cannot? Yes, but we have no way of
    knowing it. We cannot rule out an uber-comprehender that could somehow
    comprehend the trinity, but we cannot — in principle according to the
    theologians — comprehend such an entity. Further we similarly cannot rule out
    an uber-comprehender that could somehow comprehend ’round squares’ –
    and for exactly the same reasons. Note that the only basis for our
    assertion that a ’round square’ is incoherent is our own judgment that
    such a supposed thing is incoherent. Once we begin supposing an
    uber-comprehender that is beyond our comprehension, we have no way to
    determine that our judgments must hold — on any matter.

    And this is why I said earlier that one ends up showing only that one
    doesn’t know what ‘coherent’ means. In effect, your argument is: if we
    assume that we don’t know what ‘coherent’ and ‘comprehensible’ actually
    mean, then we can conclude that the dogma of the trinity is coherent and
    comprehensible. But this is not even wrong.

  170. #170 Greg Byshenk
    January 5, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    If one sticks to judging the Trinity based on a brief
    summary of it, one opens oneself to the charge that one has judged a
    strawman, since a Christian may consider the summary to be an inevitably
    imperfect description.

    Which is the Christian’s and the church’s dodge. “Of course you can
    criticize any statement of the dogma, but your criticism’s are all
    meaningless because the statements are mere shadows of the true and
    perfect description.”

    How about this one: there is an ideal argument for why you should
    immediately send me all of your money. Of course, if I attempt to
    present the argument to you, it may seem easily defeated. But this is
    not a problem for the argument, it is only a problem with our human
    imperfections and the inevitable inability to present the perfection of
    the ideal argument.

    Send me an email, and I will tell you where to send the cash. :-)

  171. #171 holland
    January 5, 2007

    Premise 1:
    The concept of coherence is comprehensible by humans.

    Premise 2:
    The Trinity is coherent in a way that is incomprehensible by humans.

    Combining Premises 1 and 2 we get:
    The Trinity is comprehensible by humans in a way that is incomprehensible by humans.

    This isn’t true or false, it’s just nonsense. Meaninglessness. Gibberish.

  172. #172 Owlmirror
    January 5, 2007

    We were not talking about whether “even someone smarter than all of humanity put together” could reach empirical conclusions about the outside world, but rather whether this hypothetical super-smart person could understand ideas that we could not.

    If the idea has no empirical basis, there’s no reason to conclude that there is anything to understand.

    I repeat, “If one sticks to judging the Trinity based on a brief summary of it, one opens oneself to the charge that one has judged a strawman, since a Christian may consider the summary to be an inevitably imperfect description.”

    Since no Christian anywhere can provide a better description to be judged, the accusation of judging a strawman is false.

  173. #173 J. J. Ramsey
    January 5, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “If something cannot be comprehended by any known agent, then it is (at least so far as we have any way of determining it) incomprehensible;”

    You just about gave away the store by what you put in parentheses. The problem is that you are trying to elide over the difference between something that is incomprehensible in principle (and thus cannot be comprehended by anyone, no matter how “uber”) and something that merely has not yet been known to have been comprehended.

    Greg Byshenk: “Once we begin supposing an uber-comprehender that is beyond our comprehension, we have no way to determine that our judgments must hold — on any matter.”

    Incorrect. If we can comprehend something, it is, well, comprehensible. If we can demonstrate that something is contradictory, then we can rule it as incomprehensible in principle. (So, contrary to what you suppose, we can “rule out an uber-comprehender that could somehow comprehend ’round squares’”.) The problem is the stuff in between, the stuff that we cannot comprehend but cannot spot the contradiction outright. This might be incomprehensible in principle, or it might simply be beyond our capabilities to understand. We don’t know. It’s indeterminate. Again, what you are trying to do is conflate the stuff in between with the stuff that is incomprehensible in principle.

    Greg Byshenk: “Which is the Christian’s and the church’s dodge. ‘Of course you can criticize any statement of the dogma, but your criticism’s are all meaningless because the statements are mere shadows of the true and perfect description.’”

    True, but the dodge can become less and less plausible if the opposition shows that its working description really does resemble the picture (or pictures) provided by Christian theologians.

  174. #174 J. J. Ramsey
    January 5, 2007

    holland:

    “Premise 1:
    The concept of coherence is comprehensible by humans.

    “Premise 2:
    The Trinity is coherent in a way that is incomprehensible by humans.

    “Combining Premises 1 and 2 we get:
    The Trinity is comprehensible by humans in a way that is incomprehensible by humans.”

    The problem is that you are substituting “concept of coherence” for “coherent.” A more proper syllogism is this:

    “Premise 1:
    If something is coherent, then it is comprehensible by humans.

    “Premise 2:
    The Trinity is coherent in a way that is incomprehensible by humans.

    “Combining Premises 1 and 2 we get:
    The Trinity is comprehensible by humans in a way that is incomprehensible by humans.”

    The catch is that the first premise is false.

    The trouble is that “The concept of coherence is comprehensible by humans” does not imply what you think it does. Just because you can understand what “coherence” means in principle, it does not mean that you are necessarily in a position to judge what is and is not coherent. That is sort of like saying that because you understand the concept of length, you can always estimate how long something is.

  175. #175 holland
    January 5, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    You’re now changing your story in an attempt to avoid confronting the stupidity of what you actually wrote. Your disputed claim is that the Trinity may be “coherent” or a “coherent concept” that we are incapable of understanding. The concept that is the subject of that claim is THE TRINITY, not coherence. Coherence is the property you are postulating the concept possesses, not the concept itself. And you defined “coherent,” as you are using the word, to mean “logically possible.” So your claim is that the Trinity may be a “logically possible” concept that we are incapable of understanding. That claim is gibberish. If we can’t understand it, the claim that it is logically possible has no meaning. It’s precisely equivalent to saying that an object whose shape we are incapable of understanding may nevertheless be “round.” It’s nonsense.

  176. #176 J. J. Ramsey
    January 5, 2007

    holland: “So your claim is that the Trinity may be a ‘logically possible’ concept that we are incapable of understanding.”

    Yes, emphasis on the “may.”

    holland: “If we can’t understand it [the Trinity], the claim that it is logically possible has no meaning.”

    So you are claiming that if human beings cannot understand something, then it must be logically impossible?

  177. #177 J. J. Ramsey
    January 5, 2007

    Now this is an example of how to criticize the Trinity:

    (See also the blog post that went with it.)

    Notice that he actually went through the trouble of pointing out concrete issues on the Trinity. He points out that the various doctrines that would have made the Trinity more clear have been called heresies, and he then goes on to name and describe these heresies. He falls short of proving that the Trinity is, strictly speaking, logically impossible, but he does cast doubt on it, and he shows he did his homework.

    Actually, the kind of treatment that he gave could have been done in TGD, and Dawkins could have had quite a bit of sport with it.

  178. #178 J. J. Ramsey
    January 5, 2007

    Sorry for the triple post, but …

    holland: “Your disputed claim is that the Trinity may be “coherent” or a “coherent concept” that we are incapable of understanding. The concept that is the subject of that claim is THE TRINITY, not coherence.”

    holland, I remind you that “concept of coherence” was your turn of phrase, not mine.

  179. #179 holland
    January 5, 2007

    J.J.Ramsey,

    So you are claiming that if human beings cannot understand something, then it must be logically impossible?

    No, I’m not claiming that. I’m claiming what I said, namely that if we can’t understand the Trinity, the claim that it is logically possible has no meaning. It’s precisely equivalent to saying that an object whose shape we are incapable of understanding may nevertheless be “round.” It’s nonsense.

  180. #180 AJS
    January 6, 2007

    Frankly, I’m surprised nobody has tried yet to weigh in with an appeal to Quantum Mechanics. Something along the lines of “The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit are all Eigenstates of a wave function we call God”. Or tried to tie in the Trinity with wave-particle duality.

  181. #181 Greg Byshenk
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk:

    If something cannot be comprehended by any known agent,
    then it is (at least so far as we have any way of determining it)
    incomprehensible;

    J. J. Ramsey

    You just about gave away the store by what you put in parentheses.
    The problem is that you are trying to elide over the difference between
    something that is incomprehensible in principle (and thus cannot be
    comprehended by anyone, no matter how “uber”) and something that merely
    has not yet been known to have been comprehended.

    I “gave away” nothing. I am pointing out that your attempt to maintain
    that something can be incomprehensible yet still in some way comprehensible
    is doomed to failure. To conclude that something is ‘incomprehensible’ is
    only to conclude that it is not capable of comprehension by any known agent
    using any known means. This is what makes ‘incomprehensible’ not equivalent
    to ‘incomprehended’, the latter being a merely statement of contingent fact.

    But what about “incomprehensible in principle”? Here we must ask, “in
    what principle?” And there seem to be two possible answers. Either
    we mean a) principles that we comprehend — in which case your “incomprehensible
    in principle” collapses to ‘incomprehensible’; or b) you are supposing some
    principle that we do not comprehend — in which case all bets are off.

    This is the point of the uber-comprehender discussion. One may
    posit such a thing, but by doing so one has succeeded only in destroying any
    meaningful distinction between ‘comprehensible’ and ‘incomprehensible’. If
    such an entity exists, it must be incomprehensible to us (because it is
    posited as comprehending what is incomprehensible to us), and therefore we
    can say nothing whatsoever about what might or might not be
    incomprehensible based on its principles, and it need not be — and
    indeed cannot be — bound by our principles. So we cannot rule out
    that the uber-comprehender somehow comprehends the trinity due to some
    deeper (and incomprehensible to us) understanding of unity and separateness
    – but similarly we cannot rule out that the uber-comprehender somehow
    comprehends round squares due to some deeper (and similarly incomprehensible
    to us) understanding of roundness and/or squareness; indeed, some have argued
    that ‘god’ (the uber-comprehender par excellence) need not be
    bound by non-contradiction.

    I think that this makes the problem clear. Either ‘incomprehensible in
    principle’ means “incomprhensible to us, according to our principles” — in
    which case it reduces to ‘incomprehensible’ — or we cannot conclude that
    anything is ‘incomprehensible in principle’ and the term is vacuous,
    and to us meaningless.

    Or, to put what is the same point in a different way: you seem to want
    to posit an uber-comprehender that is not bound by our principles of
    comprehension, but at the same time assert that our principles of
    comprehension can limit its capacities. But that is contradiction, so you
    are on the horns of a dilemma. If you wish to rule out the comprehension of
    round squares — “in principle” — then our principles of comprehension must
    apply universally, and you cannot posit an uber-comprehender that is
    not bound by our principles of comprehension, and have no way of making the
    trinity comprehensible. On the other hand, if you wish to posit an
    uber-comprehender that is not bound by our principles of comprehension,
    then you have no basis for concluding that round squares (or anything
    else
    ) are “incomprehensible in principle”.

  182. #182 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “you seem to want to posit an uber-comprehender that is not bound by our principles of comprehension, but at the same time assert that our principles of comprehension can limit its capacities”

    Nope. This hypothetical “uber-comprehender” is simply supposed to be smarter than us. This is not much different from positing a hypothetical supercomputer that is more powerful that the computers we currently have.

    Greg Byshenk: “To conclude that something is ‘incomprehensible’ is only to conclude that it is not capable of comprehension by any known agent using any known means. This is what makes ‘incomprehensible’ not equivalent to ‘incomprehended’, the latter being a merely statement of contingent fact.”

    This is not quite correct. Your definition of “incomprehensible” is still contingent. The following rewriting of your paragraph would rule out all contingency:

    “To conclude that something is ‘incomprehensible’ is only to conclude that it is not capable of comprehension by any possible agent using any possible means. This is what makes ‘incomprehensible’ not equivalent to ‘incomprehended’, the latter being a merely statement of contingent fact.”

    Now this working definition of “incomprehensible” no longer hinges on contingencies such as the possibility of finding new agents that could comprehend what the previously known agents could not. I have preferred to use “incomprehensible in principle” for this purpose, so I would write,

    “To conclude that something is ‘incomprehensible in principle’ is only to conclude that it is not capable of comprehension by any possible agent using any possible means. This is what makes ‘incomprehensible in principle’ not necessarily equivalent to ‘incomprehensible’, the latter potentially being merely a statement of contingent fact.”

    Greg Byshenk: “I am pointing out that your attempt to maintain that something can be incomprehensible yet still in some way comprehensible is doomed to failure.”

    You’ve left out a few crucial pieces. If you were to say, “I am pointing out that your attempt to maintain that something can be incomprehensible to us yet still could in some way comprehensible to someone else is doomed to failure,” it would appear obviously wrong. Yet those pieces in italics are explicitly part of my argument.

    holland: “if we can’t understand the Trinity, the claim that it is logically possible has no meaning.”

    The problem is that this is equivalent to saying, “if we can’t understand the Trinity, the claim that it is not intrinsically contradictory has no meaning.” The claim that it is not intrinsically contradictory is unverifiable, at least not without better evidence than the theologians have on offer, but that is not the same as saying that it is meaningless.

    AJS: “Frankly, I’m surprised nobody has tried yet to weigh in with an appeal to Quantum Mechanics.”

    I have tried to avoid it. The big difference between quantum mechanics and the Trinity is that with the former, even if one does not intuitively understand it, one can follow its math and use it to make verifiable predictions. Indeed, those predictions often have been verified. The main useful lesson of quantum mechanics with regard to the Trinity is to be wary of arguments that boil down to, “If something seems superficially contradictory, it must be, in fact, contradictory.” Anything more complicated than that is on the verge of Chopra-woo territory.

  183. #183 Greg Byshenk
    January 6, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    Nope. This hypothetical “uber-comprehender” is simply supposed
    to be smarter than us. This is not much different from positing a hypothetical
    supercomputer that is more powerful that the computers we currently
    have.

    Nope.

    The problem is that you cannot merely posit something “smarter”, but must
    posit something that is in some way beyond what we comprehend, because the
    trinity is incomprehensible via our principles of comprehension. This would
    be rather like positing a super-super-computer that is not merely more
    “powerful” — i.e. able to do what other computers can do, but faster
    – but one that works in some way that is incomprehensible to us. And even
    here the parallel is not exact, because, while we can reason about technologies
    that might in some way be beyond our capabilities, it is impossible to reason
    about reasoning that is beyond our capabilites. Once you posit an
    incomprehensible entity, all that can be said about it is that it is
    incomperensible — and if you wish, you can read that as “incomprehensible (to
    us)”, but that makes no difference. If we posit some entity as incomprehensible,
    then we cannot say anything meaningful about it, as that would require some
    comprehension on our part. As holland notes above, it is equivalent to
    saying that there is an object whose shape is incomprehensible, and round.

    This is not quite correct. Your definition of “incomprehensible”
    is still contingent.

    Of course it is contingent, but it it contingent upon the limits of our
    capacities and comprehension. But this makes not a whit of difference, because
    the limits to possibility that we can conceive are necessarily the limits
    of what we can conceive. In the space of reasons, “any possible agent”
    and “any possible means” are simply equivalent to “any known agent” and “any
    known means” or “any conceivable agent” and “any conceivable means”. And
    again, you may read this as “conceivable (to us)”, but it makes no difference.
    Indeed, attempting to raise “possible” to a higher level is only the attempt to
    assert the limits of what we can conceive as absolute or universal limits that
    cannot be breached. But that just places you squarely back on the horns of the
    same dilemma: you assert that the limits of what we can conceive (the limits
    of ‘possibility’ as we can conceive them) are absolute limits, while at the
    same time positing an entity that is beyond the limits of what we can
    conceive.

    Further, please note that I am not saying that you cannot posit an
    uber-comprehender that can comprehend what is incomprehensible (to us).
    Rather, I am pointing out that, once you do so, then anything goes. If you
    posit such an entity, then you cannot (“in principle”) place limits on what it
    may comprehend, because you have posited it in such that any limits it might
    have are incomprehensible (to us). Because the trinity is incomprehensible to
    us, we cannot comprehend what would be required of such an entity for it to
    comprehend the trinity, and therefore the capacities and limitations of such an
    entity are likewise incomprehensible to us. And once you have crossed that line,
    then there is no basis for the assertion of anything as “incomprehensible in
    principle”. You can of say that “no possible entity that we can conceive of
    or comprehend can do X”, but you cannot apply this to your posited entity,
    because you have posited it, and therefore its capacities, as beyond what we can
    conceive of or comprehend. And I am doing nothing illegitimate by writing “no
    possible entity that we can conceive of or comprehend” for “no possible entity”,
    because “the limits to possibility that we can conceive of or comprehend” simply
    are “the limits to possibility” so far as we can conceive of or comprehend
    them.

  184. #184 Greg Byshenk
    January 6, 2007

    AJS:

    Frankly, I’m surprised nobody has tried yet to weigh in with an
    appeal to Quantum Mechanics. Something along the lines of “The Father, The Son
    and The Holy Spirit are all Eigenstates of a wave function we call God”. Or
    tried to tie in the Trinity with wave-particle duality.

    People have done so, though not in this discussion. Unfortunately, such an
    analogy fails, for at least two reasons.

    First, things such as wave-particle duality are ‘mysteries’ in the meaningful
    sense of the word. That is, they are observed facts that want explanation. The
    trinity, on the other hand, is not an observed fact, but a supposed concept, and
    is supposed as something for which no explanation is possible.

    Second, the analogy fails because it does not engage the issue. As I noted
    briefly above, the problem with the trinity is not that it claims “1=3″.
    Indeed, there is no problem at all with supposing that three entites might unite
    to form some other entity, or that some entity might appear differently in
    different aspects or from different perspectives, and even that those different
    aspects might appear contradictory. The problem arises when one attempts to assert
    that an entity demonstrates contradictory properties in a single aspect or
    in the same way at the same time. As AJS pointed out, a cylinder whose
    height and diameter are equal may appear to be round or square, depending on how
    it is viewed — but it cannot appear both round and square at the
    same time from the same perspective. Similarly, light may in different
    situations display wave-like or particle-like properties, but (unless I am much
    mistaken) it is not asserted that light is at the same time both a wave and a
    particle.

    Going a bit further, the basic “three in one” is not itself a problem.
    Consider, for example, a triangle. It is one entity (the triangle) made up of
    three parts (the three line segments). Further, it is no problem at all that
    one may consider the triange as one entity (considering the triangle as a whole)
    or as three entities (considering the three line segments independently). The
    incoherence would arise if one attempted to assert that one of the line segments,
    considered independently, was still “fully a triangle” when separate from the
    other line segments. And if one attempts to assert further that considering
    three separate objects, each of which is “fully a triangle” does not mean
    considering three triangles, then one has gone completely over to nonsense.

  185. #185 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “If we posit some entity as incomprehensible, then we cannot say anything meaningful about it, as that would require some comprehension on our part.”

    This assumes that comprehending the entity is an all-or-nothing affair, and that partial comprehension is impossible.

    Greg Byshenk: “Further, please note that I am not saying that you cannot posit an uber-comprehender that can comprehend what is incomprehensible (to us). Rather, I am pointing out that, once you do so, then anything goes. If you posit such an entity, then you cannot (“in principle”) place limits on what it may comprehend, because you have posited it in such that any limits it might have are incomprehensible (to us).”

    Again, this is assuming that comprehending this uber-comprehender is an all-or-nothing affair. That we cannot comprehend all of its limits does not mean that we cannot comprehend some of them.

    Greg Byshenk: “In the space of reasons, “any possible agent” and “any possible means” are simply equivalent to “any known agent” and “any known means”…

    I’ll just leave that one hanging. :)

    You seem to be doing everything you can to avoid the obvious differentiation between concepts that are demonstrably contradictory and concepts that we have trouble comprehending but cannot conclusively judge as contradictory.

  186. #186 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “Going a bit further, the basic ‘three in one’ is not itself a problem. Consider, for example, a triangle. It is one entity (the triangle) made up of three parts (the three line segments). Further, it is no problem at all that one may consider the triange as one entity (considering the triangle as a whole) or as three entities (considering the three line segments independently). The incoherence would arise if one attempted to assert that one of the line segments, considered independently, was still ‘fully a triangle’ when separate from the other line segments. And if one attempts to assert further that considering three separate objects, each of which is ‘fully a triangle’ does not mean considering three triangles, then one has gone completely over to nonsense.”

    The problem is that it’s not too clear that this is a good description of the problems of the Trinity. Now the Athanasian Creed reads: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” Suppose that we are charitable and say that maybe it ought to read, “the Father is divine, the Son is divine, and the Holy Spirit is divine, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” Now it’s not so clear that there is a contradiction, since one can argue that they can be divine by virtue of being of the Godhead, rather than because they are separate gods. Athanasius could be criticized for using a noun where an adjective was more correct, but that is a lesser problem. Note that “divine” is a more flexible adjective than “triangular.”

  187. #187 Greg Byshenk
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk:

    If we posit some entity as incomprehensible, then we cannot say anything
    meaningful about it, as that would require some comprehension on our part.”

    J. J. Ramsey:

    This assumes that comprehending the entity is an all-or-nothing affair, and
    that partial comprehension is impossible.

    No, it does not. You need to read more carefully.

    As I said, if we posit some entity as incomprehensible, then we
    cannot say anything about it, because it has been defined as incomprehensible.
    Or, if we posit some aspect of an entity as incomprehensible, then we cannot say
    anything about that aspect of it. And in this case you have posited the entity
    as incomprehensible in its comprehension, and therefore the capacities and
    limitations thereof — and therefore you can assert nothing regarding those
    capacities and limitations. Exactly as has been noted previously, as if one
    posits an object whose shape is incomprehensible — and round. Of course, you
    could conceivably posit other aspects of your uber-comprehender as
    comprehensible without problems — your uber-comprehender could be
    incomprehensible in its comprehension, but have a comprehensible shape, for
    example — but that does nothing to help your argument.

    Again, this is assuming that comprehending this uber-comprehender
    is an all-or-nothing affair. That we cannot comprehend all of its limits does
    not mean that we cannot comprehend some of them.

    Again, it assumes no such thing. Please note that I said nothing at all
    about “all its limits”, but restricted myself to the relevant limits, which are
    its limits to comprehension, and which you have posited as incomprehensible.

    In the space of reasons, “any possible agent” and “any possible means” are
    simply equivalent to “any known agent” and “any known means…

    I’ll just leave that one hanging. :)

    I’m guessing that you think you are being clever, but all you are doing is
    showing off your lack of reading comprehension.

    You seem to be doing everything you can to avoid the obvious
    differentiation between concepts that are demonstrably contradictory and concepts
    that we have trouble comprehending but cannot conclusively judge as
    contradictory.

    Not at all. Indeed, I am well aware of the various logical distinctions
    one might use. What I am showing you is that — at least in relation to this
    discussion involving the incomprehensible comprehender of incomprehensibles –
    the distinctions you wish to draw are utterly irrelevant. Yes, we can normally
    draw a distinction between “not (yet) comprehended by us”, “incomprehensible by
    us”, and “impossible”. But these distinctions are drawn within the limits of
    our comprehension — indeed, such must be the case, given that
    those distinctions are being drawn by us. And once you have posited The
    Great Comprehender, who can comprehend what is incomprehensible to us — and
    whose comprehension (and the capacities thereof) must therefore be
    incomprehensible to us — we can no longer maintain the distinctions based on
    the limits of our comprehension, at least in relation to your entity, because
    you have posited your entity as being beyond those limits.

  188. #188 Greg Byshenk
    January 6, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey

    Suppose that we are charitable and say that maybe it ought to
    read, “the Father is divine, the Son is divine, and the Holy Spirit is divine,
    and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” Now it’s not so clear that there
    is a contradiction, since one can argue that they can be divine by virtue of
    being of the Godhead, rather than because they are separate gods.

    Which is very clever, but fails.

    The problem is that the dogma of the trinity must encompass the premise that
    “the Son” is “fully god”. Which means that you have merely placed yourself on
    the horns of another dilemma: either a) being “divine” means (or encompasses)
    being “fully god” — in which case you have precisely the same contradiction;
    or b) being “divine” means something other than (or does not encompass) being
    “fully god” — in which case you are talking about something other than the
    dogma of the trinity.

    And this sort of “argument” is why people say that reading the theologians
    is a waste of time: one can rearrange the words (and create new ones) without
    end, but such never actually resolves anything. Which is why, as was noted
    earlier, even the church itself now recognizes that the dogma is
    incomprehensible.

  189. #189 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “Please note that I said nothing at all about “all its limits”, but restricted myself to the relevant limits, which are its limits to comprehension, and which you have posited as incomprehensible.”

    And my objection stands: That we cannot comprehend all of the limits of the uber-comprehender’s comprehension does not mean that we cannot comprehend some of them. In particular, an uber-comprehender cannot comprehend the inherently contradictory.

    Me: “In the space of reasons, “any possible agent” and “any possible means” are simply equivalent to “any known agent” and “any known means…”

    Greg Byshenk: “I’m guessing that you think you are being clever, but all you are doing is showing off your lack of reading comprehension.”

    Your non-response is noted.

    Greg Byshenk: “Yes, we can normally draw a distinction between ‘not (yet) comprehended by us’, ‘incomprehensible by us’, and ‘impossible’.

    You can dispense with the “normally” part. The whole point of the “uber-comprehender” device was to show that these distinctions exist, and because they exist, we cannot make the cognitive shortcut, “If humans cannot understand something, it must be impossible.”

  190. #190 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “The problem is that the dogma of the trinity must encompass the premise that ‘the Son’ is ‘fully god’. Which means that you have merely placed yourself on the horns of another dilemma: either a) being ‘divine’ means (or encompasses) being ‘fully god’ — in which case you have precisely the same contradiction; or b) being ‘divine’ means something other than (or does not encompass) being ‘fully god’ — in which case you are talking about something other than the dogma of the trinity.”

    One can say that being “fully god” means to have all the attributes that God is supposed to have: omnipotence, omniscience, etc., none of which requires being separate from the Godhead.

    Greg Byshenk: “And this sort of ‘argument’ is why people say that reading the theologians is a waste of time: one can rearrange the words (and create new ones) without end, but such never actually resolves anything.”

    It helps to know how the theologians are going to rearrange the words, so one can avoid retreading the same ground.

  191. #191 Greg Byshenk
    January 6, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    And my objection stands: That we cannot comprehend all of the
    limits of the uber-comprehender’s comprehension does not mean that we cannot
    comprehend some of them. In particular, an uber-comprehender cannot comprehend
    the inherently contradictory.

    Again, you are just throwing out new words, but they don’t advance your
    argument. “Inherently contradictory” has the exact same problem as “impossible”,
    which I have already pointed out: we determine what we shall call “inherently
    contradictory” or “impossible” based upon the limits of what we can conceive
    and comprehend. Is what we so determine really “inherently contradictory”
    or “impossible”? Well, we believe so, and indeed cannot believe otherwise,
    because the limits to what we can conceive and comprehend are necessarily the
    limits to what we can conceive and comprehend. We cannot somehow step outside
    of these limits, because what is outside them is inconceivable and
    incomprehensible — “to us”, but we are us, and that is all we have.
    For example, we assume non-contradiction to be necessary, because we cannot
    conceive of reasoning without it. But if we push the question, and ask whether
    it is really necessary for reasoning per se, or necessary only to
    our reasoning due to some limit to what we can conceive, then we cannot
    provide an answer, because we cannot somehow step outside our own limitations
    to a position from which the question could be answered. Indeed, the question
    is meaningless (at least for us) because it is unanswerable in principle (at
    least for us).

    Of course, as I noted before, normally — when we are engaged in argument
    among “us” — this doesn’t matter. The distinctions we draw based upon what
    we can conceive and comprehend remain valid — at least for us. And because
    we are all we have, among us they are valid — full stop.

    But once you posit the Comprehender of the Incomprehensible and Conceiver
    of the Inconceivable, such putative validity disappears. The problem is that
    you have posited this entity as being beyond our limits of comprehension, and
    therefore we cannot suppose anything about what its capacities and
    limitations might be. You have posited this entity as capable of comprehending
    the trinity, but as I noted previously:
    Because the trinity is incomprehensible to us, we cannot comprehend what
    would be required of such an entity for it to comprehend the trinity,

    Perhaps the trinity can be comprehended only by an entity that is not bound
    by non-contradiction, or by an entity that can comprehend the inherently
    contradictory. We would want to think that such was not the case, but
    ultimately we have no way of knowing.

    Your non-response is noted.

    No further response was called for. I explained what the statement meant
    and why it is true in the message to which your responded. You ignored the
    explanation and tried to be clever, and thus no more response is necessary
    other than to point out that you ignored the explanation that was already
    given.

    The whole point of the “uber-comprehender” device was to show
    that these distinctions exist, and because they exist, we cannot make the
    cognitive shortcut, “If humans cannot understand something, it must be
    impossible.”

    The I must point out that your entire series of contributions on this
    subject has been and utter and abject failure, on multiple levels.

    First, I don’t think that anyone (at least in this discussion) has claimed
    that “If humans cannot understand something, it must be impossible.” Rather,
    people have pointed out that, if something (such as the trinity) is supposed
    to be incomprehensible, then nothing meaningful can be said about it. The
    problem with the dogma of the trinity is that, to the extent that it can be
    described, it is incoherent (which is why the church itself no longer claims
    that it can be coherently stated). So its defenders retreat to the position
    that it is incomprehensible (at least to us). This is already a problem,
    because it means that the defenders of the dogma are asserting a claim that
    they themselves admit to be incomprehensible, which is equivalent to saying
    “I assert frabblejabble!” But the next step, to assert that it is
    incomprehensible, but coherent in some incomprehensible way, goes beyond the
    pale. It is not even wrong. There is simply no way to make sense of the
    assertion.

    Second, your uber-comprehender device serves only to collapse the
    distinctions you want to highlight — for reasons that have already been
    explained at considerable length.

    In short: in an attempt to attack a position that wasn’t actually taken,
    you have succeeded only in collapsing the foundations of your own position.

  192. #192 Greg Byshenk
    January 6, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    One can say that being “fully god” means to have all the
    attributes that God is supposed to have: omnipotence, omniscience, etc.,
    none of which requires being separate from the Godhead.

    Of course. Being “fully god” does not require separation. But the
    dogma of the trinity does, for it must cohere with the gospels.
    And not only does the dogma of the trinity insist that the three are
    separable, but unless the three were actually separated — at
    least temporarily — much of the gospels makes no sense. And once again
    you are on the horns of dilemma.

    It helps to know how the theologians are going to rearrange
    the words, so one can avoid retreading the same ground.

    But only if one considers the destination worth reaching and reachable.
    Someone wishing to attempt explain the dogma of the trinity might be well
    advised to review the theologians, in order to avoid running again down a
    known dead end. For the rest of us, such is purely a waste of time. Not
    only is it a case of “you can’t get there from here”, but there is no good
    reason to think that there is a “there” at all.

  193. #193 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “we determine what we shall call ‘inherently contradictory’ or ‘impossible’ based upon the limits of what we can conceive and comprehend.”

    No, we determine what is inherently contradictory about something by finding the contradiction in it.

    Greg Byshenk: “once you posit the Comprehender of the Incomprehensible and Conceiver of the Inconceivable”

    I think we’ve been talking past each other here. Judging from the context and how you have used the term “incomprehensible,” you seem to have in mind that I was positing something that could somehow understand “round squares.”

    Greg Byshenk: “I don’t think that anyone (at least in this discussion) has claimed that ‘If humans cannot understand something, it must be impossible.’”

    I’m sorry, but it looked to me like much of the above posts were about obfuscating a position that amounted to that very claim.

    Greg Byshenk: “Rather, people have pointed out that, if something (such as the trinity) is supposed to be incomprehensible, then nothing meaningful can be said about it…. the defenders of the dogma are asserting a claim that they themselves admit to be incomprehensible, which is equivalent to saying ‘I assert frabblejabble!’”

    The problem is that your description appears to assume that comprehending the Trinity is an all-or-nothing affair, and that partial comprehension is impossible. Perhaps what you want to say is that the Trinity is a claim that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in some frabblejabble way.

  194. #194 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “Being “fully god” does not require separation. But the dogma of the trinity does, for it must cohere with the gospels. And not only does the dogma of the trinity insist that the three are separable, but unless the three were actually separated — at least temporarily — much of the gospels makes no sense. And once again you are on the horns of dilemma.”

    However, it is a dilemma that has at least nominally been dealt with, though I’m rusty on the details of how.

    Greg Byshenk: “Someone wishing to attempt explain the dogma of the trinity might be well advised to review the theologians, in order to avoid running again down a known dead end. For the rest of us, such is purely a waste of time.”

    Fair enough.

  195. #195 Greg Byshenk
    January 7, 2007

    Greg Byshenk:

    we determine what we shall call ‘inherently contradictory’
    or ‘impossible’ based upon the limits of what we can conceive and comprehend.

    J. J. Ramsey:

    No, we determine what is inherently contradictory about something by finding
    the contradiction in it.

    Your “no” is not apposite, as you are not actually saying anything
    different than what I said, at least when one recognizes that “finding a
    contradiction” is necessarily something that we do, by our
    lights
    , within the limits of what we can comprehend and conceive.
    And when we assert that something is “impossible”, “in principle
    incomprehensible”, “inherently contradictory”, etc., what we are
    actually doing is asserting (or hypothesizing) that our lights are the best
    that there is (or that there can be no superior comprehension or conception),
    at least regarding that particular matter. Further, so long as we limit
    ourselves to our universe — the universe of human reasons, based upon what
    we can comprehend and conceive, the assertion/hypothesis is true.

    Further, it may even be true — full stop. That is, for a given X,
    it may be that our comprehension of X is complete, and our hypothesis about
    X holds for any possible reasoner having any possible capacities for
    comprehension. Nonetheless, it must remain only a hypothesis, as there is
    no way for us to test it, because we cannot step outside the space of human
    reasons, comprehend what is (to us) incomprehensible, or conceive what is
    (to us) inconceivable.

    Thus, if you posit an entity that is outside the universe of human
    reason, comprehension, and conception (necessarily, because you have posited
    the entity as able to comprehend what is incomprehensible within that
    universe), we have no basis whatsoever to assert that our hypothesis must
    hold for that entity.

    you seem to have in mind that I was positing something that
    could somehow understand “round squares.

    Plainly that is not what you want to posit — but that is the result of
    what you have posited. Or, rather, based on what you have posited, you
    cannot rule out “something that could somehow understand ’round squares’”
    – and what I have been doing here is showing you why that is the case.
    Perhaps stated more simply by example, as noted previously: because the
    trinity is incomprehensible to us, we cannot know what is required for its
    comprehension. This means that it could be that the capacities required for
    the comprehension of the trinity are precisely those required for the
    comprehension of round squares. Note that I am not saying that such is
    the case, but only that there is absolutely no way for us to determine
    whether or not such is the case, and therefore there is no way that we can
    rule it out.

    That is, I have been showing you how, if you posit a Comprehender of
    Incomprehensibles, you cannot exclude the possibility that it comprehends
    round squares.

    I’m sorry, but it looked to me like much of the above posts
    were about obfuscating a position that amounted to that very claim.

    Based on what, exactly?

    As I said, I don’t think that anyone in this discussion has advanced that
    claim (though I have not carefully re-read all the preceding messages).
    Indeed, in a few instances you suggested that someone was making an
    impossibility claim, and your suggestion was rejected — explicitly.

    This would seem to be nothing more than a further indication that your
    reading comprehension is somewhat less than optimal.

    The problem is that your description appears to assume that
    comprehending the Trinity is an all-or-nothing affair, and that partial
    comprehension is impossible.

    No, my “problem” (such as it is) is that I am taking the theologians at
    their word. The theologians are the ones who posit the trinity and defend
    the supposed concept, while they themselves assert that it is incomprehensible.
    Suppose that someone advanced a new GUT, asserting that it explained all
    phenomena perfectly and was plainly true — with the only problem being that
    it was incomprehensible. Calling this ‘nonsense’ would be a kind response.

  196. #196 J. J. Ramsey
    January 7, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “And when we assert that something is ‘impossible’, ‘in principle incomprehensible’, ‘inherently contradictory’, etc., what we are actually doing is asserting (or hypothesizing) that our lights are the best that there is (or that there can be no superior comprehension or conception), at least regarding that particular matter.”

    No, what we are asserting is that our lights are sufficient to point out the contradiction, and that a superior intelligence would be overkill and reach the same result.

    Greg Byshenk: “Perhaps stated more simply by example, as noted previously: because the trinity is incomprehensible to us, we cannot know what is required for its comprehension. This means that it could be that the capacities required for the comprehension of the trinity are precisely those required for the comprehension of round squares.”

    The first sentence is correct, provided that the premise “the trinity is incomprehensible to us” is correct. The second sentence is nonsense, since there is no such thing as the capacity to comprehend round squares.

    Again, you are simply reading into my posts the idea that an “uber-comprehender” would be not bound by the “principles of comprehension,” it would simply execute those principles better than we do. In other words, its intellect would be to ours as our intellect is to the retarded. You seem to be blurring (or just not understanding) the distinction between propositions that are incomprehensible to us, which includes both things that are logically contradictory and things that we just don’t have the brainpower to parse, and things that are flat out incomprehensible, period, (i.e. what I call “incomprehensible in principle”), which is the subset of things incomprehensible to us that includes only propositions that are logically contradictory.

  197. #197 J. J. Ramsey
    January 7, 2007

    Actually, I should correct myself here. Incomprehensible propositions are best split into three categories, not two:

    1) Logically contradictory propositions.

    2) Terminally ambiguous propositions, which are not contradictory but are not posed in a clear enough fashion for them to be judged true or false.

    3) Propositions that one just doesn’t have the intellect to grasp.

    If one can spot the contradiction or terminal ambiguity in an incomprehensible proposition, then the proposition is not a member of the third category, and it is incomprehensible in principle. If one cannot do that, then one cannot say to which category an incomprehensible proposition belongs. Smarter intellects are better at spotting whether propositions belong in the first two categories, and for a hypothetical “uber-comprehender,” no proposition would belong in the third category at all.

  198. #198 Greg Byshenk
    January 7, 2007

    Greg Byshenk:

    And when we assert that something is ‘impossible’, ‘in principle
    incomprehensible’, ‘inherently contradictory’, etc., what we are actually
    doing is asserting (or hypothesizing) that our lights are the best that
    there is (or that there can be no superior comprehension or conception), at
    least regarding that particular matter.

    No, what we are asserting is that our lights are sufficient to point out
    the contradiction, and that a superior intelligence would be overkill and
    reach the same result.

    Again, you say “no”, but your response is not contrary to what I have
    written. To say that “our lights are sufficient” for the full comprehension of
    some X is no different than saying that “there can be no superior comprehension”
    of X.

    But even so, you fail to engage with what is actually at issue. [And I must
    add at this point that I am beginning to tire of your continuing to do so. You
    clearly do not want to accept the points I am making -- yet when I provide
    extensive explanation and argument for those points, you simply ignore what I
    have written, and fail to challenge or even engage with the arguments.]
    Yes, we assert such (or alternatively, hypothesize such). But is our assertion
    actually true? And the problem is that it is impossible for us to
    determine the truth of our assertion/hypothesis, as we cannot place ourselves
    in some position beyond the limits of our reason and comprehension from which
    the assertion/hypothesis could be tested.

    The first sentence is correct, provided that the premise “the
    trinity is incomprehensible to us” is correct. The second sentence is nonsense,
    since there is no such thing as the capacity to comprehend round squares.

    On what possible basis do you make the assertion that “there is no
    such thing as the capacity to comprehend round squares”? Certainly we
    cannot comprehend round squares, and indeed cannot even conceive of how any
    entity could comprehend round squares. The problem is that we have
    no way whatsoever to determine whether this is a limitation of
    conceivability and comprehension per se, or only a limitation of what
    what we are able to conceive and comprehend, and therefore also no way of
    knowing whether such limitations must apply to an entity that defined as
    being able to conceive what we find inconceivable and comprehend what we
    find incomprehensible.

    Again, you are simply reading into my posts the idea that an
    “uber-comprehender” would be not bound by the “principles of comprehension,”
    it would simply execute those principles better than we do.

    But if you limit your comprehender in this way, then you have no basis
    for assuming that your comprehender is capable of comprehending what is
    incomprehensible to us. In the extant case of the trinity, we do not even
    know what would be involved in comprehending it, which further at
    least suggests that what would be required is something beyond our
    principles of comprehension. For example, I do not comprehend Calabi-Yau
    manifolds or Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture, but I know what
    is involved in comprehending them, as such are the same principles of
    comprehension and principles of reason that are used for comprehending
    anything. And even “the retarded” are capable of comprehending how logic,
    etc. work, even if they are unable to perform proofs (at least if they are
    not so retarded as to be incapable of abstract reasoning, but at that point
    you cross over the boundary and are dealing with different principles of
    comprehension).

    You seem to be blurring (or just not understanding) the
    distinction between propositions that are incomprehensible to us, which
    includes both things that are logically contradictory and things that we
    just don’t have the brainpower to parse, and things that are flat out
    incomprehensible, period,…

    Not at all. I understand (completely, I think) what you are saying.
    What I am doing is pointing out (and showing) that, given certain
    assumptions, the distinction you are drawing collapses. Indeed, I have
    already stated this quite explicitly. Further, I have explained at some
    length exactly what I mean, and provided argument in considerable detail
    for why it is true. Yet you choose simply to ignore the explanation and
    argument, returning to your bare assertion about what I “seem to be”
    doing — with such “seem”ing based on just nothing that is present in
    the discussion.

    I have no interest in presenting further argument that will only continue
    to be ignored. If you choose not to engage with what I am saying, I see no
    reason to continue to waste my time.

  199. #199 J. J. Ramsey
    January 7, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “On what possible basis do you make the assertion that ‘there is no such thing as the capacity to comprehend round squares’?”

    Principle of non-contradiction. Basic rule of logic.

    Me: “Again, you are simply reading into my posts the idea that an ‘uber-comprehender’ would be not bound by the ‘principles of comprehension,’ it would simply execute those principles better than we do.”

    Greg Byshenk: “But if you limit your comprehender in this way, then you have no basis for assuming that your comprehender is capable of comprehending what is incomprehensible to us. … even ‘the retarded’ are capable of comprehending how logic, etc. work, even if they are unable to perform proofs (at least if they are not so retarded as to be incapable of abstract reasoning, but at that point you cross over the boundary and are dealing with different principles of comprehension).”

    I’d say that part of the problem is the ambiguity regarding “principles of comprehension.” When you introduced the term, you were rather unclear as to its meaning, and it is still not clear what you meant by it. As far as I interpreted it, it seemed to be a loose synonym for the laws of logic. Playing games with the phrase “principles of comprehension” seems to be a cute trick to dodge the issue that humans are not necessarily the smartest beings around, and the fact that we have trouble wrapping our heads around an idea is not good evidence on its own that it is false.

    Me: “You seem to be blurring (or just not understanding) the distinction between propositions that are incomprehensible to us, which includes both things that are logically contradictory and things that we just don’t have the brainpower to parse, and things that are flat out incomprehensible, period, (i.e. what I call “incomprehensible in principle”), which is the subset of things incomprehensible to us that includes only propositions that are logically contradictory. [or are terminally ambiguous].”

    Greg Byshenk: “What I am doing is pointing out (and showing) that, given certain assumptions, the distinction you are drawing collapses…. I have explained at some length exactly what I mean, and provided argument in considerable detail for why it is true.”

    And if you take out the obfuscations in your arguments, it is basically a denial of the possibility that there may be true ideas out there that we cannot come close to grasping.

  200. #200 Greg Byshenk
    January 7, 2007

    Greg Byshenk:

    On what possible basis do you make the assertion that ‘there is no such
    thing as the capacity to comprehend round squares’?

    J. J. Ramsey:

    Principle of non-contradiction. Basic rule of logic.

    I’ve addressed this issue already, more than once. If you insist on
    ignoring my arguments and simply coming back with bare assertions that do
    not engage with what I have written, there is no point in my writing.

    And if you take out the obfuscations in your arguments, it is
    basically a denial of the possibility that there may be true ideas out there
    that we cannot come close to grasping.

    And again you throw out the claim of “obfuscation”, but support this
    claim with absolutely nothing, failing to demonstrate or even point
    to an example of the “obfuscations” you claim. Feh.

    And, again, your reading comprehension appears to be failing you. Nothing
    that I have written here is “basically” — or indeed in any way — “a
    denial of the possibility that there may be true ideas out there that we
    cannot come close to grasping.”

  201. #201 J. J. Ramsey
    January 7, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “And again you throw out the claim of ‘obfuscation’, but support this claim with absolutely nothing”

    One obfuscation was you introducing the red herring of “principles of comprehension,” which was ill-defined and based on an improper dissection of the idiom “in principle”. The idiom here simply implies a lack of dependency on contingent facts. If one speaks of something being “verifiable in principle,” there is no issue of “principles of verification.” Rather, one means that it is logically possible to verify something, even if it is infeasible to do so (because of a lack of records, lack of measuring equipment). For an example of such usage, see “The Status of the Verifiability Principle” by Marvin Zimmerman in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Mar., 1962), pp. 334-343, where the author writes, “A statement will be considered “cognitively meaningful” if it is verifiable in principle, i.e., if it is logically possible to verify it …” You can Google to find the first page of this online, which is how I found it. If one speaks of something being “comprehensible in principle,” one means that it is logically possible to comprehend something, even if it is infeasible to do so. Asking the question, “in what principle?” is simply an abuse of the idiom.

    This obfuscation led to this:

    “But what about ‘incomprehensible in principle’? Here we must ask, “in what principle?” And there seem to be two possible answers. Either we mean a) principles that we comprehend — in which case your ‘incomprehensible in principle’ collapses to ‘incomprehensible’; or b) you are supposing some principle that we do not comprehend — in which case all bets are off.”

    This invalid interpretation of the idiom led not only to an ambiguous phrase, “principles of comprehension,” but also to an invalid conclusion, “‘incomprehensible in principle’ collapses to ‘incomprehensible’.”

  202. #202 Greg Byshenk
    January 8, 2007

    One obfuscation was you introducing the red herring of
    “principles of comprehension,” which was ill-defined and based on an improper
    dissection of the idiom “in principle”.

    Not in the least.

    Admittedly, my use of ‘principle’ was a bit of wordplay, in that I was
    playing off your use of ‘principle’ in a different way. But the mere fact
    of wordplay as a quick segue to my point is hardly ‘obfuscation’,
    particularly given that I have explained exactly what I meant, and my
    conclusion was not dependent upon the wordplay itself, but on the explanation
    and argument presented.

    And I will add that your leap from “verifiable in principle” to
    “comprehensible in principle” is illegitimate. ‘Verification’ (whether “in
    principle” or not) is something that applies to the empirical universe. Thus,
    to say that something is “verifiable in principle” (though perhaps not in fact)
    is to say that one knows exactly what would be required for verification, even
    if the facts are not available to actually perform it. ‘Comprehension’, on
    the other hand, applies in the universe of ideas, where matters such as
    missing facts do not apply. Which means that, in the parallel situation, if
    we know exactly what is required for comprehension, then we are in fact
    able to comprehend it, and “comprehension in principle” collapses to
    “comprehension (in fact)”. And, on the other hand, if we do not know
    exactly what is required for comprehension, then we have no legitimate basis
    for concluding that something is comprehensible at all.

    Finally, I will add that while my wordplay did indeed play with your use of
    terms, it was not abuse of the relevant concepts. That is, one way to
    read “is it verifiable in principle” is as asking “on what principles would it
    be verifiable” (disregarding the matter of whether one in fact has sufficient
    information to apply those principles in the instant case).

  203. #203 J. J. Ramsey
    January 8, 2007

    This statement of yours,

    “if we know exactly what is required for comprehension, then we are in fact able to comprehend it,”

    is slippery. Are you talking about what is required for comprehension of a particular proposition, or what is required for comprehension of any proposition? If your statement means, “if we know exactly what is required for comprehension of a particular idea, then we are in fact able to comprehend it,” then I would agree, but it would be a non sequitur to this next statement of yours:

    “‘comprehension in principle’ collapses to ‘comprehension (in fact)’.”

    If anything, this is backwards. If something is comprehensible in fact, than it is comprehensible in principle. The converse, though, is not necessarily true.

    Greg Byshenk: “one way to read ‘is it verifiable in principle’ is as asking ‘on what principles would it be verifiable’”

    Except that “principles” would have to be used very loosely and include both various ground rules (which would normally be called “principles”) and various bits of evidence that might conceivably be used to verify something. It’s a possible reading, but not one that captures the gist of “in principle” very well.

  204. #204 Greg Byshenk
    January 9, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey:

    Are you talking about what is required for comprehension of a
    particular proposition, or what is required for comprehension of any proposition?
    If your statement means, “if we know exactly what is required for comprehension
    of a particular idea, then we are in fact able to comprehend it,” then I would
    agree, but it would be a non sequitur to this next statement of yours:
    “‘comprehension in principle’ collapses to ‘comprehension (in fact)’.”

    It is not in the slightest a non sequitur, and you’ve already given away
    the store. If, as you admit, the statement is true for any given case of
    comprehension, then it is true for all cases of comprehension. “There exist no
    X’s that are not Y” is precisely equivalent to “all X’s are Y”. Far from being
    a non sequitur my conclusion follows almost immediately.

    And please note that I am not (obviously, I think) suggesting that we
    know what is required for the comprehension of any and all propositions. Rather,
    I am pointing out that, for any given proposition in the set of all possible
    propositions, either a) we know what is required for the comprehension of that
    proposition, and thus the proposition is in fact comprehensible; or b) we
    do not know what would be required for the comprehension of that proposition,
    and thus we have no ground for concluding that the proposition is comprehensible
    at all. Further, I am not suggesting that any proposition that is
    comprehensible must be comprehensible to us, nor conversely that any proposition
    that is incomprehensible to us must be incomprehensible per se. Indeed, I
    would assume that there are in fact propositions that happen to be
    incomprehensible to us, but are nonetheless comprehensible by some other entity.
    The problem is that, as far as we are concerned, that set must necessarily
    remain empty, for the reasons already set forth.

    It is similar to the case of false beliefs. That is, I have every reason to
    think that at least some of my beliefs are false. But it is impossible for me
    to determine which beliefs those might be, becasue to believe something is to
    believe it to be true, and as soon as I determine that one of my (former) beliefs
    was false, I can no longer believe it, and it is no longer a member of the set
    of my beliefs. So with ‘comprehensible in principle’: there may well be
    propositions that are comprehensible that we fail to comprehend — but as soon
    as we can determine that a proposition is ‘comprehensible in principle’, it
    is already ‘comprehensible’ (in fact). Thus ‘comprehensible in principle’ is
    not exactly ‘meaningless’ — because we know what it would mean for something to
    be such — but rather vacuous — because to our knowledge its extension
    must remain empty.

  205. #205 J. J. Ramsey
    January 9, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “It is not in the slightest a non sequitur, and you’ve already given away the store. If, as you admit, the statement is true for any given case of comprehension, then it is true for all cases of comprehension. “There exist no X’s that are not Y” is precisely equivalent to “all X’s are Y”. Far from being a non sequitur my conclusion follows almost immediately.”

    No, it doesn’t.

    X = idea that is comprensible in fact
    Y = idea that is comprensible in principle

    There is no collapsing unless you switch X and Y. Bear in mind that “all X’s are Y” does not imply that “all Y’s are X”.

    Greg Byshenk: “I am not suggesting that any proposition that is comprehensible must be comprehensible to us, nor conversely that any proposition that is incomprehensible to us must be incomprehensible per se. Indeed, I would assume that there are in fact propositions that happen to be incomprehensible to us, but are nonetheless comprehensible by some other entity. The problem is that, as far as we are concerned, that set must necessarily remain empty”

    No, as far as we are concerned, that set is of unknown size and content, which is not the least bit the same as being empty.

  206. #206 Greg Byshenk
    January 10, 2007

    No proposition that can be determined to be ‘comprehensible in principle’
    is not ‘comprehensible’ (in fact). All propositions that can be determined
    to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact).

    No, as far as we are concerned, that set is of unknown size
    and content, which is not the least bit the same as being empty.

    As far as we are concerned, it is precisely the same as being
    empty. It is a supposed set, whose members cannot possibly be determined by
    us, and indeed that we cannot possibly determine to have members at all. As
    I said, not so much meaningless as vacuous: we know what it would mean for
    something to satisfy the conditions of being ‘comprehensible in principle, but
    not comprehensible (in fact)’ — but the conditions are such that they cannot
    – “in principle” — ever be determined to obtain.

    And, again, none of this means that the set is necessarily empty. The
    Maximal Comprehender (should such an entity exist) could perhaps determine
    whether there are any propositions that are ‘comprehensible to the MC’
    (=’comprehensible in principle’) but not ‘comprehensible to us’ (=’comprehensible’
    [in fact]), and what they were (if there were any). But we cannot do so,
    and so as far as we are concerned the set is necessarily empty. [Also
    interesting is the fact that such is also true of any actual comprehender. That
    is, one can posit an MC, who is then defined as comprehending all
    comprehensible propositions -- but no comprehender could himself know that he
    met that condition. Unless one supposes that this comprehender was capable of
    comprehending all possible propositions -- but this raises its own set of
    problems, as it would mean that all propositions were 'comprehensible in
    principle'.]

  207. #207 J. J. Ramsey
    January 10, 2007

    Greg Byshenk: “All propositions that can be determined to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact).”

    Careful here. Determined by who? And comprehensible in fact to who? If you write, “All propositions that can be determined by us to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by us,” that works, but if you write, “All propositions that can be determined by us of normal intelligence to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by the retarded,” then this is obviously not true.

    Greg Byshenk: “As far as we are concerned, it is precisely the same as being empty. It is a supposed set, whose members cannot possibly be determined by us, and indeed that we cannot possibly determine to have members at all.”

    This is obviously not true. The fact that you can write, “we know what it would mean for something to satisfy the conditions of being ‘comprehensible in principle, but not comprehensible (in fact)’,” shows that they are not precisely the same. Indeed, it seems to me that knowing that there may be things that we cannot comprehend is a good way to remind ourselves not to get overconfident about our reasoning abilities, which is useful in itself.

  208. #208 Greg Byshenk
    January 11, 2007

    Careful here. Determined by who? And comprehensible in fact to
    who? If you write, “All propositions that can be determined by us to be
    ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by us,” that
    works…

    Almost, but not quite. Indeed, I would think that what I meant should
    have been clear from the rest of my message (the part where I specifically
    referenced “any actual comprehender”). That is: “for any given
    comprehender C, all propositions that can be determined by C
    to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by
    C.”

    if you write, “All propositions that can be determined by us
    of normal intelligence to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’
    (in fact) by the retarded,” then this is obviously not true.

    Sorry, but you are begging the question again, as your statement assumes
    that there is we can differentiate between ‘comprehensible in principle’ –
    for us — and ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) — for us — which assumption you
    have already accepted as invalid
    . Without the invalid assumption, your
    supposed “restatement” becomes “All propositions that are ‘comprehensible’ (in
    fact) by us are are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by the retarded” — which
    statement is almost certainly false, but says nothing whatsoever about
    ‘comprehensible in principle’.

    The fact that you can write, “we know what it would mean for
    something to satisfy the conditions of being ‘comprehensible in principle,
    but not comprehensible (in fact)’,” shows that they are not precisely the
    same.

    But, of course, I haven’t ever said that the concept ‘comprehensible in
    principle’ is “precisely the same” as the concept ‘comprehensible (in fact)’;
    indeed, I have explicitly stated the opposite. What I have stated is that,
    for us (and indeed for any given comprehender) ‘comprehensible in principle’
    collapses to ‘comprehensible’ (in fact), because anything that can be
    determined by us actually to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ is also
    ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by us. This is why I said that ‘comprehensible in
    principle (but not in fact)’ was ‘vacuous’, rather than ‘meaningless’ or
    ‘false’. Indeed, what I said (quite plainly, I think, as you seemed to have
    understood the point when I first raised it, though you seem now to have gone
    to a great deal of effort to interpret perversely) was that “a supposed set,
    whose members cannot possibly be determined by us, and indeed that we cannot
    possibly determine to have members at all”, is for us “precisely the same”
    as being empty. Consider: we know what would be required for an object to
    satisfy the conditions of being a ’round square’ — but to the limits of what
    we can determine, those conditions cannot be satisfied. It is precisely the
    same for ‘comprehensible in principle, but not comprehensible (in fact)’: we
    know what would be required for a proposition to satisfy the conditions of
    being such — but to the limits of what we can determine, those
    conditions cannot be satisfied. Thus, for us, the set of such propositions,
    like the set of round squares, is for us precisely the same as the
    empty set.

    Indeed, it seems to me that knowing that there may be things
    that we cannot comprehend is a good way to remind ourselves not to get
    overconfident about our reasoning abilities, which is useful in itself.

    Unfortunately, this statement is vacuous or stupid (or both). It is a
    certainty that there are “things that we cannot comprehend”. The
    question is whether such things are comprehensible — and that question is
    necessarily unanswerable. Further, there is nothing that can be
    said about “things that we cannot comprehend” except that we cannot
    comprehend them. If we cannot comprehend something, there is no way to
    determine whether it might ultimately be comprehensible or incomprehensible
    (except perhaps actually to do the work to try to make it comprehensible,
    if one would like it to be so). And, to return to the original subject,
    to posit something as ‘incomprehensible to us but somehow
    comprehensible nonetheless’ is pure nonsense (one can do so, of
    course, but one quickly ends up in absurdities — rather like the fact that
    one can posit “0=1″).

    As for being “overconfident about our reasoning abilities”, this sounds
    a great deal like a religionist straw man. I don’t know any reasonable
    people who are “overconfident about our reasoning abilities” (indeed, the
    limitations of human reason has been part of the basis for my entire
    argument here). On the other hand, we recognize that “our reasoning
    abilities” are the only thing we have that will enable us to comprehend
    anything at all.

  209. #209 J. J. Ramsey
    January 11, 2007

    Me: “if you write, “All propositions that can be determined by us of normal intelligence to be ‘comprehensible in principle’ are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by the retarded,” then this is obviously not true.”

    Greg Byshenk: “Sorry, but you are begging the question again,”

    What?! You are right in saying that this rewriting would lead to the false statement, “All propositions that are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by us are are ‘comprehensible’ (in fact) by the retarded”. That hardly involves begging the question.

    Greg Byshenk: “Consider: we know what would be required for an object to satisfy the conditions of being a ’round square’ — but to the limits of what we can determine, those conditions cannot be satisfied.”

    Except that the problem is not that we are running up against the limits of our comprehension, but rather that our comprehension, whatever its limits, is quite sufficient to see the contradiction. I realize that technically you are not talking at this point about running up against our limits, but you are phrasing things in such a way that makes it easy for you to equivocate.

    Greg Byshenk: “It is precisely the same for ‘comprehensible in principle, but not comprehensible (in fact)’: we know what would be required for a proposition to satisfy the conditions of being such — but to the limits of what we can determine, those conditions cannot be satisfied.”

    This is incorrect. It is not necessarily true that “those conditions cannot be satisfied,” but rather that we cannot tell whether the conditions are satisfied in practice or not. Essentially, you are using the fuzziness in the phrase “to the limits of what we can determine” to fudge the difference between a known logical possibility and a proposition that we don’t know how to process.

    Greg Byshenk: “Indeed, what I said … was that ‘a supposed set, whose members cannot possibly be determined by us, and indeed that we cannot possibly determine to have members at all’, is for us ‘precisely the same’ as being empty.”

    Yes, you did say this quite plainly. However, if we know that a set that may be empty is not necessarily empty, then it hardly makes sense to say that even from our perspective, the possibility of being empty is “precisely the same” as actually being empty.

  210. #210 Greg Byshenk
    January 13, 2007

    That hardly involves begging the question.

    That is a very nice bare assertion. Unfortunately, I actually provided
    an argument for my conclusion. If you want to engage in this sort
    of discussion, you really need to counter the argument, rather than simply
    saying “no, it’s not!”

    And with that, I think that I am done wasting my time with this. At this
    point, you are just raising supposed “objections” that I have already addressed
    previously in this discussion, while ignoring the explanations and arguments
    already presented: in effect, just saying “no it’s not!” over and over
    again. There is simply no point in attempting to present reasoned
    explanation and argument if it is going to be ignored. Or, for that matter,
    if my words are going to be willfully misinterpreted — such as when you now
    say “Yes, you did say this quite plainly”, even though your previous message
    claimed that I said something else, and something that I quite plainly did
    not say, and indeed had previously explicitly rejected — or when I
    make a specifically qualified claim, and you remove the qualifications in
    order to attack the universal claim that I did not make.

  211. #211 Caledonian
    January 14, 2007

    I believe you’re mistaken about one point, Mr. Byshenk: it’s entirely possible that a thing might be incomprehensible, yet the matter of whether we can know it to be comprehensible or not isn’t. It’s also logically possible for a thing to be comprehensible, yet whether we can know this to be true to be incomprehensible.

  212. #212 Greg Byshenk
    January 14, 2007

    Cadeonian

    It’s also logically possible for a thing to be comprehensible,
    yet whether we can know this to be true to be incomprehensible.

    But I haven’t denied that claim. My point is that anything said about such
    things is vacuous, and that as far as we are concerned, such things are
    just ‘incomprehensible’. Once we say that something is beyond our comprehension,
    then by definition we cannot comprehend it, and further we cannot say anything
    meaningful about it.

    It is similar to the case of the “existence” of the more extreme Deist
    creator ‘gods’. If we posit such a ‘god’ whose existence, so far as we can
    possibly determine, is equivalent to its nonexistence, the so far as we can
    possibly determine
    , its existence is precisely equivalent to its
    nonexistence. And note that this is neither to assert or to deny the existence
    of such a ‘god’, but only to note that the assertion of such existence is
    empty. And more importantly, though someone who does not follow Okham could
    choose to affirm the existence of such an entity, nothing can follow logically
    from it — or at least nothing can follow from it that does not follow equally
    from its denial.

    So is it with the incomprehensible. There may — or may not — be things
    that we do not — or cannot — comprehend, that are nonetheless (in some sense)
    comprehensible (the “in some sense” is required because, if they were
    comprehensible strictly in our sense, then we could comprehend
    them). But there is nothing else to be said about such supposed things, because,
    again, nothing can follow from this necessarily indeterminate proposition.

    Backing up a bit…

    it’s entirely possible that a thing might be incomprehensible,
    yet the matter of whether we can know it to be comprehensible or not isn’t.

    Not quite. Remember that we are necessarily working within the limits of
    what we can comprehend. Thus, the statement must be rewritten as:

    it’s entirely possible that a thing might be incomprehensible to
    us
    , yet the matter of whether we can know it to be comprehensible to us
    or not isn’t.

    … which is quite true, but won’t take you very far. There are propositions
    that we can demonstrate to be — within the limits of our comprehension,
    reason, etc.
    — incomprehensible. We may further suppose that such
    propositions are incomprehensible to any comprehender — but that can be only
    a supposition, because it is based upon the inescapable limits of our own
    comprehension. But, if we posit a Comprehender of Incomprehensibles, then we
    have posited something that is beyond our limits, and all bets are off.

  213. #213 Caledonian
    January 15, 2007

    Once we say that something is beyond our comprehension, then by definition we cannot comprehend it

    Correct.

    and further we cannot say anything meaningful about it

    Wrong.

  214. #214 Greg Byshenk
    January 16, 2007

    Not much of an argument, there, Caledonian.

    I refer back to holland‘s comment from earlier: if one says some
    thing has a shape that is “incomprehensible and round”, then one is talking
    gibberish. If we can comprehend it as ’round’, then it cannot be
    ‘incomprehensible’; on the other hand, if it is ‘incomprehensible’, then
    we cannot comprehend it as ’round’ (or as anything else).

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