Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The three-step argument

Something Bat said in a comment on the last post reminded me of something that's bothered me for awhile.  It's the way Catholic apologetics is always done in three steps.  First, you prove the existence of God, philosophically.  Second, you assume that, given theism, Christianity is true.  And third, you assume that, given Christianity, Catholicism is true.

On the first step, I'm a little weak because, while I know the standard proofs for the existence of God, I know there's more to it than that.  Aquinas claimed to be able to prove that God was also one, good, eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient.  I'm not familiar with those arguments, and I'm interested in learning more, although I have to admit I don't have much confidence in Aquinas being able to convince me.  He tends to assume too much at the outset.

But most people seem to gloss over the difference between "proving that there is some eternal substrate behind the universe" and "proving there's an infinite being who loves me," simply saying that since most people in history have believed in the former, and that the former is reasonably certain philosophically, it naturally follows that the latter is true as well.  I don't see it -- I can come up with lots of different scenarios.  Perhaps matter/energy is the eternal substrate, or some physical thing.  Perhaps there is some eternal being apart from the universe, but it's a what, not a who -- it isn't conscious.  Perhaps there is one, but it's limited in some way besides time.  Perhaps there is a God, but he doesn't care about humans.  After all, there are countless kinds of things in the universe besides us -- God could have created the universe as a physics experiment, or because he wanted to create stars or nebulas or aliens.  Maybe he likes us fine but doesn't believe in interfering in any way.  I don't see that any of these are philosophically disprovable -- though I leave a caveat here that I've never seen a serious attempt to do so.

Okay, we haven't proved anything, but let's move on as if we have.  Given that God wants to reveal himself to man, is Christianity the right religion?  It might be.  It has a lot of adherents, so that's kind of promising.  Hinduism doesn't work if you've proven monotheism somehow, and Buddhism is nontheistic, so we can rule those out.  Islam isn't attractive to most Americans for a variety of reasons -- not least of which is that we've been raised on the idea of a nice God.  The evidence for Islam is very simple to go over -- the whole Quran was written by Muhammad, so either you trust that it was dictated by an angel, or you don't.  Christianity's evidence is somewhat more promising because it claims historical facts which ought to act as a backup to the theological claims -- though those are not as well-attested as one might hope.  Mormonism's claims are much better attested -- there are twelve sworn affidavits of people who claimed to have seen the gold tablets -- but Mormonism has problems.  First off, it assumes Christianity to begin with, so it doesn't get you past accepting those historical proofs.  And second, Mormonism has been pretty damaged by archeological finds.  So, among major religions, you're back to Christianity.

If you assume that someone rising from the dead is highly unlikely, you'd need very good evidence for it, and that evidence is not available.  But if you assume a God who wants to reveal himself exists, I suppose you could just say that the resurrection's not all that unlikely.  I mean, as religions go, Christianity is well-attested.  So I can see how people who philosophically prove God are going to want to go for Christianity.

The last step is to prove that, of all the denominations available, Catholicism is the right one.  There are some Bible verses to go on, which to me aren't all that convincing.  But there's a strong logical argument -- assuming God really wanted to reveal himself to people, he would have wanted to make sure we had something really clear to go on, which would let us know what to believe and do.  The Bible couldn't be it, because it's incredibly hard to understand and apparently contradictory throughout.  Anyway you'd want someone on the scene who could apply the teachings to each generation.  So, Catholicism makes sense in that way.  We can also go through all the other denominations and show that Catholicism is the one that is most similar to what the earliest Christians believed.

My only objection to this argument is that, even with the Church as a guide, it's still really hard to know what to believe and do.  How do you know what stuff is infallible?  What if you're mistaken about who the Pope is?  What if the Mass isn't valid?  That sort of thing.  Still, I find this last argument convincing enough that I haven't given any serious thought to Protestantism.

Okay, so apart from any flaws in the individual arguments, I still see a great big problem.  And the problem is that no single one of these steps is certain.  It's my opinion that no human being can ever be certain of anything, though we can get extremely close.  But humans tend to overestimate how sure we are.  I can't remember the exact numbers, but I believe there was a study showing that when people said they were 100% sure of something, they were right 80% of the time.  That should incline us toward humility about our judgments.

And the further trouble is this: the more steps you take, the more uncertainty is compounded.  If step two relies entirely on step one, and you're 90% of step one, and 90% sure of the connection between step one and step two, then you are more like 80% sure of step two.  The uncertainty compounds with each further conclusion you draw.  Yet it seems we are expected, when following this argument, to round up with each step.

Then, of course, that big rounding you do when making the "leap of faith" -- you might be 90% sure or you might be 50%.  Heck, you might be 2% and people will still say you shouldn't take the risk.  And at that point you round up and act like you are completely sure.  You should give your life for this conclusion.  And you shouldn't keep looking into it or be open to change based on new information.

It doesn't seem like good sense to me.  But, as I so often lament, the Church requires it.  Keeping an open mind, from a Catholic perspective, is like keeping an open marriage.  It's a relationship and you're betraying it if you go checking up on other possibilities.  And I can't exactly object to this point of view, but I think that at the moment this way of looking at it comes into play, the idea that the whole thing is based on fact and sound reasoning goes out the window.  Even if the initial facts and arguments were reasonably valid, rounding up like this is not rational.

Now, it's a choice that you make and you have the right to make it.  But believing is not knowing -- it's choosing to act as if you did.


Laura said...

*Does* the Church really require it? It's an interesting question. . . . I kind of know the mindset you're talking about: "If anyone says thusandsuch, let him be anathema. . . ."

But I think really all the Church *requires* of its members are the seven precepts. Go to Mass on Sunday, etc. . . .

If you follow those just on a Pascal's Wager sort of mentality . . . . Who's saying you're hellbound?

Sheila said...

Well, the Church pretty clearly does consider doubt to be a sin. I've tried to justify many of these minimalist ideas of Catholicism -- just the precepts, just the Creed, whatever -- but the trouble is, the Church claims to have a lot more authority than that. And if I don't believe its claim to be able to define what sin is, why should I believe any of its claims at all? Pretty much all the Popes from the beginning to today seemed to be defining Catholicism in a very take-it-or-leave it sort of way. Complete with anathemas. I'd sort of like to be a more liberal, agnostic sort of Catholic but I just can't find a justification for it.

Laura said...

Hmm. Well.

"Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. ****Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity**** If deliberately cultivated, doubt can lead to spiritual blindness. (CCC 2088)"

I really don't mean to debate you. It's just something I wanted to look into b/c it's something I think about myself.

Sheila said...

I know what you mean; there's definitely a lot of difficulty in figuring out how much doubt you're "allowed" to have. My feeling about it is that as long as you are *trying* to believe, assuming that any doubts you have are wrong and the Church is right and you're just trying to figure out how that can be, you're not sinning. I felt myself between a rock and a hard place awhile back, feeling that the Church demanded I should be trying to believe, but of course if you ever want to find out the truth about anything you can't be trying to believe something - you have to honestly ask yourself, "Is this likely to be true?" It seems to me that even asking the question, "Is it possible that the Church is wrong?" or "How would I know if God didn't exist?" must be voluntary doubt, because you're willingly seeking out the right answer, rather than the Catholic answer. Or, in the words of Vatican I, "Those who have accepted the faith under the guidance of the church can never have any just cause for changing this faith or for calling it into question." And wasn't what I was doing the definition of calling it into question?

But on the other hand, isn't the faith all about seeking the *truth,* and so whenever you honestly search for the truth, you're searching for God? I don't know, it seems that it can't be both ways. All I know is, I felt in my conscience that actually obtaining the best answer I could on the question was a duty I couldn't shake off or complete just by saying "I believe whatever the Church does." Because if the Church WAS wrong, I was going to have to start from scratch and work out a morality to my actions that fit the available facts, you know? Because whether there is life after death, or whether we are saved by baptism, are questions that do affect our actions.

I mean, I suppose you could say I'm an "agnostic Catholic" even now, because I mostly follow those precepts, I think. But do I exactly fit in? What would I tell the priest in confession, "Bless me Father for I don't believe in God"? If I believed in some, but not all, of what the Church teaches, I think I'd hang around, because even if the Church's promises and claims aren't all true, it's my heritage and as good a place to look for God as any. But I don't believe really ANY of it, not in any sort of actionable way. That sort of takes away the point of it, and makes me feel pretty awkward in Catholic circles even when I keep my mouth shut.

Best wishes as you wrestle with this yourself, I know it's hard! I hope you resolve things in a way that you are happy with.

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