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.

Never mind

I was trying in my last couple of posts to clarify a distinction. But I honestly think now that Zippy has seriously impaired his own power of reason on the subject to the point it is not even worth discussing these matters with him. It's like talking to a liberal. I'd already seen the false victimhood tactic used on me on his blog, but now he's gotten worse to the point of utterly separating himself from any kind of real metaphysical basis on which moral theology is formed.

He's now equated contraception with hatred of children, invented a specious distinction between act and omission to perpetuate his irrational reading of Veritatis Splendor, suggested in analogy to stolen property that a past vasectomy permanently renders someone's reproductive system intentionally contracepted even if the person really changes his mind, and endorsed extremism in opposition to abortion to the point of directly contradicting the Holy See's prudential guidance on capital punishment ("every outlaw abortionist swinging from a gibbet"). He's a wacked out liberal in the guise of a conservative, just like the rad-trads, except he doesn't even have the defense of at least appearing consistent with what was done before. There's no touchstone to reality in any of this; he's just asserting his own positive interpretation as normative without subjecting it to any methodological scrutiny. Like other liberal positivists, he's in the "grip of a theory" with which there is no reasoning.

I don't know what's going on with this guy, but we shouldn't tolerate this sort of wild and unmoored speculation just because he happens to agree with us on the conclusions sometimes, any more than we tolerate any other brand of liberal positivism with regard to Catholic dogma. As I will argue in my development of doctrine post, there is room for healthy speculation, but this is an example of what it isn't.