Saturday, February 21, 2009

Theories of Christian dogma

I have recently become emboldened to speak more strongly on matters of doctrinal development. This is because I believe that discussions on the subject have been dancing around the facts that I consider dispositive of the issue. I find the occasion of Michael Liccione's reply to an objection to be opportune for setting out why I believe the discussion has heretofore allowed so many escape trails to be blazed. Since Dr. Liccione kindly mapped out the battlefield in his earlier post on hermeneutical circles in Chrisitan communions, it remains for me only to deploy the forces rightly so as to cut off the retreat.

I view the following as the key statement in Dr. Liccione's reply:


ML>> I have long argued that a species of induction, namely "abduction" or "inference to the best explanation," is the standard form of DD.


This states the basis for a number of Dr. Liccione's posts on not merely distinctively Catholic doctrines (DCDs) but also supposed "contradictions" in Catholic dogma. By claiming abduction as such an ordinary method, Dr. Liccione also deftly draws out both an explanation of why there must be an authority in order to preserve an objective sense of dogma:


ML>> In general, explanations are evaluated in terms of a certain set of criteria: e.g., consistency (is the explanation consistent with what we already know?), capaciousness (does it cover everything that calls for explanation?), parsimony (does it avoid making assumptions and positing entities beyond what's necessary?) and other criteria depending on the subject matter. But the application of such criteria, though partly objective, is also subjective to some extent. In an ecclesial context, the application relies to some extent on the sensus ecclesiae. The consensus patrum is certainly an expression of the sensus ecclesiae; but is it the only normative one? If so, why? If not, what else is there? I remain firmly convinced that, the more seriously one grapples with such questions, the more reasonable the teaching of Vatican II on DD will come to seem.


But why not simply join the battle plainly at this point? The Catholic hermeneutical circle is the abductive explanation for the objective sensus ecclesiae. The difficulty with claiming this or that doctrine developed by abduction, even if that doctrine happens to be the authority of the Pope, would to me take too narrow a view of the strength of abduction. If we are going to use abduction as a criteria for what to believe in this or that other case, then why not use abduction to determine the best global theory of authority?


In speaking of the physical sciences, Paul A.M. Dirac said at various times during his life that "a theory of mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data," "there are occasions when mathematical beauty should take priority over agreement with experiment," and "it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment." What Dirac had in mind was the simplicity of the underlying principles, the ease of applying the quantities to physical phenomena being investigated, the flexibility of application to new difficulties, and the clarity of how pieces related to one another. Unquestionably, that sort of "beauty" is likely not apparent to one who has not toiled in physical investigation, particularly with respect to the criterion of "simplicity" (which has much in common with "divine simplicity" in that regard, like Chesterton's report of the woman who said "If this is God's simplicity, I'd hate to see His complexity"). But as in the case of master craftsmen, those who dedicate their lives to crafting mathematical descriptions of physical phenomena can judge quality in ways that seem obscure to the untaught.


A good measure of the beauty of a theory in this regard is the amount of explanatory apparatus one has to deploy in order to resolve phenomena that do not emerge naturally from the principles. Those with many additions are "ugly" in the sense Dirac gives above, and it is more likely that there is some minor inconsistency or error in the theory that works well on its own principles than that the creation of Frankenstein's monster is going to prove better in the long run. That was largely the reason that quantum mechanics, relativity, and thermodynamics were deemed acceptable despite their counterintuitive application to physical phenomena. Consider the opposition from Einstein ("God does not play dice with the universe"), Schroedinger ("I don't like it, and I wish I'd never had anything to do with it"), Michelson (who disbelieved the result of the experiment bearing his name disproving the existence of light-bearing ether), and Boltzmann (requiring a "molecular chaos assumption" in the equation on his tombstone bearing his name, the one he hoped would explain the behavior he was forced to assume). Ultimately, putting something in to "fix" these theories in that regard would have been too artificial (the jury is still out on Einstein's cosmological constant and Dirac's opposition to renormalization, which might just end up being at least partially right).


This diversion into physical law is made not only because it was my primary interest for most of my life but because it is the paradigm case for abductive explanations. And I think it illuminates one of the biggest problems with attempting to look at particular instances of development of dogma rather than the strength of the theory as a whole. In the larger sense, the Catholic hermeneutical circle described above is not merely a theory of the function of the papacy but a far more general explanation of how Christian revelation operates.


On the strength of a very few principles that are not ridiculously controversial in Christian history (that Peter was constituted head of the Apostles, that the Apostolic office is successive in some sense, that there is some succession of the Petrine charism in Rome) along with some relatively simple principles about how this authority operates (communion with Peter's successor is a prerequisite for formal communion with the Church, the infallibility doctrine of Vatican I), one has a consistent explanation for essentially every bit of Christian dogma in a couple of millennia and not only distinctively Catholic dogma. This isn't to say that there aren't counter-intuitive principles at work here; it's certainly not a simplistic explanation. But it is a simple explanation, in that once the work is done to make sure the principles are right, one isn't hunting around all over the place for external explanations of why this or that dogma is held.


But the explanation of those things is not the limit of the theory. What is perspicacious about the theory is its explanation of why things were done in this way as a whole in a way that motivates not only Christian dogma but also metaphysics, science, and morality more generally. That's what I think is truly persuasive (and beautiful) about the Catholic religion. The difficulty I find with even other Christian sects (and moreso with other religions) is that even what we have in common is an explanatory dangler, one of those ugly lashed-on assumptions, in other sects. That is least obvious with those having the most in common with us Catholics (particularly Eastern and Oriental Orthodox), but true nonetheless. Moreover, they look ugly in terms of relying on explanations of facts that are even *more* counter-intuitive than anything the Catholic theory requires, like the lack of institutional continuity with the people preserving Scripture in Protestantism's account and the regional, ethnic character of Orthodoxy vis-a-vis Catholicism (with the concomitant great Western apostasy supported by Franco-Roman conspiracy theories). But I would emphasize with Dr. Liccione that liberal theories are the worst of all in this regard, because they explain and motivate nothing except the ratification of one's own feelings.


To bring out one particular hobby horse of mine (with which Dr. Liccione might not agree), I happen to also think that there are tremendous explanatory problems in any account that relies on Scriptural or patristic authority to the point of conflicting with biological evolution (likely including polygenism) and plant/animal death before Adam. The intrinsic finitude of biological processes, the metabolic nature of cell death and generation, the fossil record, and the like strike me as absolute facts of existence to the point of being undeniable. That is one of those cases where I would have to modify my explanatory apparatus so drastically that the resulting theory would be too ugly for words, a "chimera" in the strongest connotation of that term. In those respects, I think Catholicism clears the hurdle of abduction quite nicely, because it explains death in terms of creaturely finitude without vitiating the larger sense of purpose (exactly as one might expect from a tradition that had been dominated by Aristotle to a greater extent than Plato, but that is another hobby horse that should probably be kept closeted). St. Maximus's notion of fruit falling in Eden without rotting, on the other hand, would require some pretty massive modification.


Thus, pace Perry Robinson, I think the reason large numbers of converts to Catholicism don't even see the need to investigate Orthodoxy to a great degree is that whatever anomalies might be raised about Catholicism are far more easily explained within the theory than adopting a less elegant theory to explain a few particulars, thereby creating many more. And pace kepha, this IS the normal way I would go about any other mode of inquiry, because I personally think the scientific method (in the abductive sense I described above) has the jury system completely beat in terms of usefully describing reality.


In terms of kepha's argument regarding the reliability of the American adversarial jury system, I think it is probably a toss-up with the inquisitorial civil system in terms of the accuracy of retrospective application of legal principles to past events with some relative advantages depending on the circumstances (individual or corporate defendants, technical nature of the case, etc.). It's not terrible, but it is certainly uncertain enough that people who are probably (and some cases even certainly) in the right still end up paying millions of dollars to settle arguably frivilous suits, which I think indicates that faith in the jury system is far from absolute. And that also introduces a level of self-selection that probably biases the overall reliability to cases where there is really enough ucnertainty that a jury determination is desired, so the reliability of the actual jury system would not necessarily correlate well with its use more widely.


More importantly, determining the legal principles is always left to judges (the authoritative jurisprude, though subject to appeal), and the jury is instructed by the judge how to apply those principles to the case before them. Moreover, the judge tightly controls what facts the jury gets to see, which reflects that people often aren't capable of accurately judging reality in uncontrolled circumstances. We don't have anything like those restrictions in picking and choosing information in most cases with religion (except maybe for children), meaning that the jury system is completely inappropriate to scientific inquiry. On the contrary, even the jury system provides robust support for the sort of scientific, theoretical inquiry, since it leaves matters of law to judges and has a complicated appeals process for assessing the success of these models over significant numbers of cases. Thus, even the example kepha cites implicitly relies on the reliability of the scientific method I have outlined here.

7 Comments:

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Mike L said...

Jonathan:

Although, as a Catholic, I agree with what you say, I am not comfortable with your aim. I take it your aim is to show that the Catholic "hermeneutical circle" has greater explanatory power than the two main alternatives. It's not that I disagree with such a conclusion; rather, and for reasons I gave in my post on "The authority question restated", I just think that the kind of argument you're giving is incapable of persuading anybody who adheres to one of the alternative HCs. Thus:

The first point to be made about the above three "hermeneutical circles" is that none can be shown superior to the others with an argument containing only premises that all parties involved—Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic—would accept. From within each circle, the others will seem at best question-begging and, at worst, viciously circular. To borrow a metaphor from the philosophy of science: each HC constitutes a paradigm that is epistemically incommensurable with the others. And that holds even when many quite similar doctrinal conclusions are reached from within each HC.

In support of that claim, I note a fact I've often observed. If and when we cite the "data" for which the Catholic HC appears as the abductively superior explanation, our opponents simply deny that said data are genuine. They'll take the same data and put their own interpretive spin on them, arguing that the documentary data don't mean what we think they mean. There is no end to the resulting back-and-forth.

That's why I prefer to shift the focus to the direction I took in this comment.

Best,
Mike

 
At 8:36 AM, OpenID arturovasquez said...

"But it is a simple explanation, in that once the work is done to make sure the principles are right, one isn't hunting around all over the place for external explanations of why this or that dogma is held."

If I understand your argument correctly, this would be the central premise of what you are arguing here. That is, instead of having to go "case by case" on doctrines, one has a "super-doctrine" of Papal primacy, and that solves all of your problems with an almost "Ockham's razor" efficiency. "It is true because the Pope says so." If that is indeed your argument, I think it is a very sui generis one.

First of all, I think it places too much burden on the office of the Papacy itself. Pastor Aeternus says that the Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. Once we break out the Ludwig Ott, then we can start seeing the hierarchy of certainty that any particular doctrines have: purgatory, indulgences, limbo, Mary as the Mediatrix of all graces, etc. What you are doing here is the doctrinal nuclear option; wipe out everything that isn't strong enough to withstand your test of certainty, yet cling to Papal primacy mainly because it seems, to you anyway, that it creates some sort of harmonious theory where everything falls into place to your satisfaction.

I just don't think there is any precedent for it, and as a person just as stuck in modernity as you are, I don't feel it at all necessary. Call me an Averroist, but religious faith does not manifest itself through the rigorous laws of trial and error that you would want to apply to it. Nor has Christian doctrine ever been as reductionist as you would have it here; it is not a system that immaculately grows out of one or two principles, but a series of mysteries that grow out of a relationship between ourselves, history, sacred texts, customs, and reason. I think you are throwing this balance off here in the name of your own intellectual lust for certainty. But in the end, the Cross is always going to look foolish. We have an obligation to make sense of it, but our endeavors will always fall short.

So I do not, nor ever could, believe in the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven merely because the Pope defined it. I simply cannot start from there. Personally, I would have to resort to Patristic evidence, evidence of the frevor of devotion of the Christian people, the often unwritten analogy between the Church and the Mother of God, and last but not least, my own formation as a Catholic to love the Virgin, to reach that conclusion. Yes, it may not be as pretty and simple of a theory, but at least there I don't throw the baby of Catholic patrimony out with the historical-critical bath water.

 
At 9:10 AM, Blogger Kepha said...

Mr. Prejean,

I apologize for posting a comment not relevant to the topic, but I see that you posted a comment at my blog. It was held for moderation as are all new comments. However, I need you to post it again please. I apologize for the inconvenience.

 
At 10:29 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Mike:
In terms of persuading the convinced, I agree that it is unlikely to work any better than dealing with specific circumstances or rebutting apparent contradictions. However, there have been a number of responses to the effect of "well, how would Mr. X investigating these hermeneutical circles decide which of them seems believable?" and on that basis to deem the Catholic account inadequate for the purpose. Basically, "who would Catholicism convince who isn't already Catholic?" In *that* respect, I think the beliefs of converts can be explained as I have outlined to show that arriving at Catholicism is a reasonable thing to do even if one has not necessarily even investigated rival theories, much as we can do with prevailing scientific theories, which by and large (though not without exception) prevail for good reasons. It is reasonable to therefore advance Catholicism as a whole and also reasonable for someone to disregard specific cavils that others might have of the theory if it appears that the explanatory difficulties a rival theory creates would pose more trouble than they are worth.

I think your point that the criticisms against Catholicism in particular are unfair given what *all* theories require is a sound one. But we have to address why a reasonable person would consider the Catholic account persuasive as an explanation as well, lest we end up appearing fideistic. Such arguments do not produce certainty, of course, but they do indicate why one might believe an account of what one would considers to be truths of faith even if they are not believed by faith. Thus, even a non-Christian who does not accept the truth of the doctrines could appreciate why Christianity might be explained in that way. While we have dealt with this or another instance of abduction in the past as particular reasons, what I wanted to stress is that it has not grasped the sort of holistic explanatory account one finds in physical science.

I consider this question particularly pertinent from a personal level, because I came into the faith without any particular religious persuasions. Being able to be docile to the teaching of the Church from that rational perspective was important to me. Since you are a cradle Catholic who had the experience of investigating these matters from within the Church, often resisting hostile accounts from people in other religious communities, you probably have a different set of priorities. It seemed like a good opportunity to harmoniously address my own concerns.

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Arturo:
That is, instead of having to go "case by case" on doctrines, one has a "super-doctrine" of Papal primacy, and that solves all of your problems with an almost "Ockham's razor" efficiency. "It is true because the Pope says so." If that is indeed your argument, I think it is a very sui generis one.

Good comments, and the "almost" should probably be excised with respect to Ockham's Razor, because I am adhering to it explicitly as one prong of determining the best explanation. One correction is that I would not say that it is true because the Pope says so, since whatever documents he issues are going to have their intent assessed and meaning in the context of Church teaching analyzed, so that it is always a case of real synergy, even if the consent of the Church is not formally required. Rather, the Pope is a keystone, and without the Pope in the explanation, it collapses into a jumble.

What you are doing here is the doctrinal nuclear option; wipe out everything that isn't strong enough to withstand your test of certainty, yet cling to Papal primacy mainly because it seems, to you anyway, that it creates some sort of harmonious theory where everything falls into place to your satisfaction.

I suppose the problem I see is that *everyone* needs "some sort of harmonious theory where everything falls into place." Theory is inescapable, and by nature, theory sweeps over what it is trying to explain. What Mike has been suggesting is that much of the criticism against Catholics is for doing just what everyone has to do, which is to advance a theory of what Christian revelation actually is. Failing to explain how things fall into place is a weakness of the theory, not a strength.

I just don't think there is any precedent for it, and as a person just as stuck in modernity as you are, I don't feel it at all necessary. Call me an Averroist, but religious faith does not manifest itself through the rigorous laws of trial and error that you would want to apply to it. Nor has Christian doctrine ever been as reductionist as you would have it here; it is not a system that immaculately grows out of one or two principles, but a series of mysteries that grow out of a relationship between ourselves, history, sacred texts, customs, and reason. I think you are throwing this balance off here in the name of your own intellectual lust for certainty.

One thing that I think should be clear is that there is no certainty in this account, any more than there is certainty with any scientific explanation. Besides, multiple accounts are adequate to produce certainty in the generic sense that you are suggesting. What I think is that we should always be looking for the best explanation that we can give, and it seems odd to me that God would not operate in this manner in a way generally similar to the way He operates in nature. Indeed, that strikes me as what was persuasive. I could be wrong, as always, but this is the basket where I would put my eggs in any other situation.

So I do not, nor ever could, believe in the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven merely because the Pope defined it. I simply cannot start from there. Personally, I would have to resort to Patristic evidence, evidence of the frevor of devotion of the Christian people, the often unwritten analogy between the Church and the Mother of God, and last but not least, my own formation as a Catholic to love the Virgin, to reach that conclusion. Yes, it may not be as pretty and simple of a theory, but at least there I don't throw the baby of Catholic patrimony out with the historical-critical bath water.

I don't say that those things don't matter. What I say is that they are not essential to the theory. In most true theories, there are numerous, important, contingent facts that caused us to become interested, for example. No one does scientific experiments for no reason, and no one arrives at a theory without creativity and intuition that are essentially formed by that person's individuality and subjective circumstances. What I mean is not to dismiss those things, but to separate what is accidental from what is essential.

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

kepha:
No problemo. I've resubmitted more or less the same comment in abbreviated form.

 
At 10:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I do not, nor ever could, believe in the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven merely because the Pope defined it. I simply cannot start from there. Personally, I would have to resort to Patristic evidence, evidence of the frevor of devotion of the Christian people, the often unwritten analogy between the Church and the Mother of God, and last but not least, my own formation as a Catholic to love the Virgin, to reach that conclusion. Yes, it may not be as pretty and simple of a theory, but at least there I don't throw the baby of Catholic patrimony out with the historical-critical bath water.

Is that what we are all supposed to do- delve intensely into patristic history or competently learn Greek and Hebrew so that we can make a best guess of our own regarding all theological matters? This also assumes that we all have the cerebral horsepower to do this competently or at all! Do you think your method is what Christ intends?

Peter P

 

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