Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Where good apologetics goes wrong

Richard Froggatt asked "does this mean that asking a question about the canon, or how you know which books are in the canon actually hurt rather than help the Catholic argument?" and a subsequent follow-up. Because I think this is a good example of how failure to articulate a positive claim can cause Catholic arguments to be received negatively, I'm going to go through the argument in some detail in an effort to point out where I think the trouble arises.

Richard states the problem well:
I guess my complaint is the denial of the witness of the Church in one area and the rejection of that witness in others. That and the misconception/misrepresentation of the function of infallibility.

Those are both legitimate criticisms, but the problem is that Richard has skipped to the conclusion without the benefit of argument. And because he hasn't gone through the argument, he starts with a bad analogy. His Protestant interlocutor was pretty obviously confused:
If he's infallible, then you have to have a way to know infallibly whether what he said yesterday is infallible.If it is, you need to know infallibly whether that way to know infallibly whether what he said yesterday is infallible is infallible.If you solve that, you need an infallible interper to tell you the infall interp of what he said.If you solve that, you need an infallible interper to tell you the infall interp of the infall interp of what he said.If you solve that, you need an infallible interper to tell you the infall interp of the infall interp of the infall interp of what he said.

But Richard replied:
Do you even realize how ridiculous this sounds? This is like saying that my father could not have told me infallibly that he was my father because I could never know for sure because I'm not infallible and I would have to keep asking other fathers if they were my father when all I had to do was believe my real father.

That's thoroughly unresponsive to the underlying confusion, and indeed, the Protestant interlocutor picked up on it immediately:
You guys can't seem to understand the difference b/w infallible and high level of certainty. Just b/c your father says he is your father doesn't make it true. There is a level of trust and secondary factors to support the evidence that can cause a high level of certainty (your parents were married prior to your birth, you look like your father, there is no reason to be suspicious of your mother's fidelity) but a DNA test would really be needed to get close to infallible. Even then, the lab could botch up the test.

We accept most things in this world based on high levels of certainty because we are fallible. If you can be honest and accept this, then the question becomes which can be proved with a higher level of certainty, the RCC as an infallible guide or the Bible.

Ken is correct, in the end we are left with faith.

Richard's point is a perfectly adequate defense in one respect: one doesn't doubt one's own "knowledge" without reason (I've used scare quotes because I will point out that this is a loose use of the term "knowledge"). But in terms of reaching his opponent, Richard's analogy just played into his opponent's error, because it reinforces the idea that we accept most things based on high levels of certainty because we are fallible. Had Richard wanted to reach his opponent "where she lives," as it were, he would have made the point his opponent did: we rely on probable judgment for most things but not all things. There is a such thing as certain knowledge of reality; indeed, all judgment depends on it. So it simply isn't true that "in the end we are left with faith." That's a common error, but it is an error.

Note that this error is a big part of the opponent's epistemic structure:
My faith is directed at God, yours is indirect through your magesterium. To me, the fact that you need visible men to solidify your faith says something.
No, scripture is infallible because it is god-breathed. But my own belief in that is fallible - that is where faith fills in the gap between high level of certainty and infallible knowledge.

Even here, what she says isn't entirely wrong. For instance, Scripture is infallible because it is God-breathed, in the sense that it is genuinely divine revelation and can be appreciated as such by faith. But faith doesn't "fill in the gap" between certainty and infallible knowledge; it's an entirely different mode of knowledge that allows one to know what cannot be known naturally. That is not to denigrate natural knowledge, but there's no way that faith can serve as a fudge factor to transform merely natural knowledge, much less merely probable knowledge, into supernatural knowledge. Indeed, if it did, this would amount to faith in one's own certainty (hence, private judgment).

Faith has certainty not by the believer but by the object. It is in this way fundamentally different than mundane knowledge. Thus, for example, you can't believe someone else's testimony by faith unless that person is speaking on behalf of God. Likewise, you can't accept the authority of Scripture without personally knowing that God wrote it. "Infallibility" in the context of faith is not epistemic but ontological. It is an assertion that the object cannot fail to be the object of faith, i.e., that faith in the object truly is faith in God. The problem emerges immediately: one can't have faith in an object that can fail to be a suitable object. It's all well and good for one to say that one has a "fallible collection of infallible books," but to have faith, one must have knowledge of an infallible object, and one's own belief is clearly not an infallible object. It's only putting the object in one's own belief that triggers the vicious circularity and "how do you know?" infinite regress cited above. If infallibility is being put not in the self but in an external object of faith, then the circularity does not arise.

Alas, Scripture is only knowable by the act of interpretation, so there is no way for someone claiming faith in Scripture to avoid ultimately making one's own belief that Scripture is inspired the object of faith, either directly or as a supplement to merely probable judgment as described above. Likewise, the analogy with respect to law offered by Warfield and Whitaker (p. 27) fails, as no law is normative of its own force. Thus, holding Scripture as "law" is simply another way of asserting faith in one's own belief (private judgment again).

The references to "infallible interpreters" and the like seem to obscure the real force of the critique: in what do you have faith? "God" is not an answer unless one is claiming immediate knowledge of God, and I would be highly skeptical of anyone claiming to possess the constant presence of the beatific vision who isn't named Jesus of Nazareth. Short of that, claims of faith in God are simply viciously circular appeals to one's own state of belief, which is acknowledged even by those claiming it to be fallible.

With all that in mind, it seems to me that the question is not "how do you know the canon?" but "why do you have faith in the canon?" Making the issue epistemic rather than ontological simply blurs the issue, confusing faith with natural knowledge most particularly on the question of certainty and infallibility.


At 5:25 PM, Blogger Reginald de Piperno said...

Jonathan - what you need is your own cult of personality :-)

(that is a joke, you anti-Catholics)

That was fantastic. Thank you.

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

Reginald, LOL!

Jonathon, thanks.

As far as the analogy; I did realize the limitations (at least I did after I posted it; which probably means I should have given it more thought before posting). I started to reply to the criticism with "why does it have to be my biological father?" but it just didn't seem worth it.

Although my first initial thought for a response would have been something like "you have too many infallible interpreters in the equation" as if the Church speaks with many voices.

I appreciate the time you've taken. I was hoping for something critical to think about; I think that's one of the best ways to grow.

At 6:04 AM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

I think I understand your argument better than I used to, but there's a "devil's advocate" thing that still flits about the edges of my mind and I wonder if you'd address it:

How is that Scripture can't be an external and proximate object of faith, but the Church can? You say that nobody claiming faith in Scripture can ultimately avoid making their own belief that Scripture is inspired the object of faith, but how does this reasoning not apply to the Catholic claiming faith in the Church? It can't be, surely, that it's because the Catholic directly experiences God's miraculous power / presence in the Church, because lots of people claim to have directly experienced God's miraculous power / presence through the words of Scripture changing their lives.

Does that make sense?

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Interlocutor said...

Tim echoes my sentiments exactly - I have always wondered why his argument towards faith in scripture could not be applied to the church as well. I have asked before and Jonathan has usually just replied that it's his faith in and experiencing the church doing divine acts. I just still don't see how his answer as to "why do you have faith in the RCC" would be somehow superior to a Protestant's response to "why do you have faith in the canon/scripture". His argument also tends to come uncomfortably (for me at least) close to scripture only being powerful solely because the church has recognized it's power, almost as if scripture becomes a servant/completely dependent on the authority of the church. But I'm more than likely completely off-base in my interpretation of his arguments.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

I think how I would answer it would be something like; two witnesses. We have the witness of the Scripture and the witness of the Church. They both testify of Christ.

I know that's not an argument though.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Quick clarification: it's not necessarily the presence of the miraculous but the presence of the divine and supernatural that is the mark of the Church. There aren't any flashy effects at baptism, but its supernatural effects are real. The Eucharist, on the other hand, is genuinely miraculous, but even then, the miracle is only apparent by faith, not by any sort of natural sign. The point is just this: miracles are not the only form of divine action. It simply has to be some divine action knowable by the experience of faith.

As to the bigger question, it occurred to me that I really hadn't made clear why Scripture would necessarily depend on the reader (and thus, faith in Scripture, taken alone, would necessarily devolve into faith in oneself), assuming one didn't actually witness it being inspired. I hope to have made that clearer in this post:


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