Thursday, April 06, 2006

Proper basicality

Ben Joseph continues his defense of Catholicism.

Let me say that I appreciate his civility as well as his patient and painstaking analysis.

Moving along:

“The point I am making therefore (contrary to Steve’s claim about it) does not need to be defended by the view that the historical arguments for the Primacy of Peter are not as complex as the exegetical arguments that are used to generate theological constructs like the Trinity; rather, it is concerned with showing only that by virtue of a subject’s placement in a certain set of circumstances, and by virtue of the properly basic beliefs which he should hold in these circumstances, he would be acting within his epistemic rights in believing in ‘sola ecclesia’; and that when this happens, it would then be rational that he should then profess belief in constructs like the Trinity; but that by contrast if he were instead to believe in the same set of circumstances and in the light of the same set of basic beliefs that ‘sola scriptura’ is true, then even though he would not on this score be acting beyond the bounds of his epistemic rights, he would yet, however, not be serving to place himself in a position wherein it will be possible for him to have rational warrant for affirming that the aforesaid constructs are true (unless, of course, he supposes himself capable of fashioning these constructs out of the conceptual structures alluded to in vi)).

In other words, Steve is assuming that one can only have rational warrant for believing in ‘sola ecclesia’ if he is conversant with whatever complex historical arguments may be used to establish Catholic claims about Roman primacy; and in so doing he is leaving out of account the possibility that a subject may have warrant for believing in ‘sola ecclesia’ by his placement in a set of circumstances wherein he feels himself confronted by a set of properly basic beliefs; and that under these conditions, the said subject could then rationally believe in ‘sola ecclesia’ and indeed be able to do this without recourse to extrinsic arguments.

Thus Steve’s objection is undercut since this assumption need not be granted; and so it would accordingly follow that such a subject could well feel himself induced to exercise a fundamental option in the matter of his electing to believe ‘sola ecclesia’ in preference to ‘sola scriptura’, by his consideration of the fact that whereas in his circumstances he would be within his epistemic rights in believing either ‘sola scriptura’ or ‘sola ecclesia’; and whereas he would also be within his epistemic rights in believing both ‘sola ecclesia’ and a construct like the Trinity; it would yet however not be within his epistemic rights that he should in these circumstances believe in both ‘sola scriptura’ and the Trinity, if he were not to be able to comprehend the relevant rational processes by means of which the Trinity will have been derived.

I don’t deny, of course, that properly basic beliefs can be falsified and that therefore extrinsic arguments can be appealed to, for the purposes of either falsifying or confirming the relevant beliefs (indeed my own probabilistic argument is a specimen of the sort of extrinsic argument which may be relied upon to serve such a function); but I contend nonetheless that in the absence of a subject’s having any recourse to such arguments, he would then be within his epistemic rights in holding to the basic beliefs that he feels himself confronted by, and that this sort of subscription on his part to the beliefs in question would then deserve to be described as a specimen of rationality.”

This raises some intricate issues. Ben is operating here within what I take to be a broadly Plantingian framework of justification. Let me begin by stating what I think are some of the working assumptions:

i) If we simply knew what was true or false or right or wrong, then that would be self-warranting.

The rationale underlying the justification of belief is that our belief may fall short of knowledge. Or else, we may know something, but be unable to prove it.

In the absence of knowledge, or demonstrable knowledge, the question is how, in part, to rate the doxastic options. We fall back on justification in the absence of knowledge, or demonstrable knowledge.

ii) And, in fact, most of what we believe is probable rather than certain. In many or most cases, apodictic proof is unobtainable.

iii) What is more, we have no choice but to form a belief which may fall short of knowledge. As a practical matter, we are confronted with far more obligations than we have time to prove or even probabilify. We have to make snap decisions. We have to go with our gut.

iv) If a belief falls short of knowledge, but if I still have a duty to form a belief and act on my belief, then the question is whether some beliefs are justified, and other beliefs are unjustified.

It would be implausible to hold us to some inhuman standard of apodictic proof, especially when we have a standing duty to believe certain things and act accordingly in the absence of apodictic proof.

v) I don’t need any special warrant for believing what is true, especially if I believe it for all the right reasons.

vi) But if I cannot always, or even ordinarily, be sure that I’m right, that doesn’t give me free license believe anything at all. Some beliefs are more reasonable than others.

vii) Would I ever enjoy prima facie warrant for believing something which is false? Would I ever enjoy prima facie warrant for accidentally believing something, which is true?

Suppose I’ve driving through a strange neighborhood. I see a man breaking into a house. I dial 9-11 on my cell phone and report the burglary.

It turns out that the homeowner locked himself out of his house.

I was wrong, But w as I wrong to report the incident?

Even though I was wrong, it would have been wrong of me not to report the incident.

Given the evidence I had, I made the morally right decision even if it proved to be factually wrong.

That’s the basic framework, as I understand it. And I largely agree.

However, its “intuitive” appeal depends in large part on what illustrations we plug into the framework. In the case of the apparent house-burglar, our intuitions go one way.

But there are other examples that may confront us with conflicting intuitions.

i) Is a teenager in the Hitler youth justified in supporting the Holocaust?

He’s been placed in a social and epistemic environment in which only the heroically virtuous could resist his conditioning. Membership is mandatory. Peer pressure is overwhelming. The doxastic environment is quite coercive.

It’s easy to dream up analogous cases:

ii) Is a Confederate justified in believing in race-based slavery and white supremacy? Is he within his epistemic rights to lynch “uppity” blacks?

iii) Does a Baal-worshipper the enjoy rational or moral warrant to commit child-sacrifice or sodomy or bestiality?


Given his socialization, these beliefs are properly basic. His circumstances powerfully predispose and virtually predetermine his outlook. That’s all he’s ever known. He has no recourse to a more enlightened position. And he would be ostracized or worse for bucking the system.

Different respondents will give different answers. To the doctrinaire libertarian, for whom freewill is the all-important condition of praise or blame, any sin or any crime, however heinous, can be excused if you can pile up enough attenuating or mitigating circumstances.

That intuition trumps all other considerations.

The libertarian begins with the agent, and proceeds to exculpate the deed in relation to the agent.

Others begin with the crime and reason back to the complicity and culpability of the agent from the nature of the crime.

So it all depends on where you situate your intuition. Some respondents will infer the nature of the c rime from the nature of the agent, while other respondents will infer the nature of the agent from the nature of the crime.

From the standpoint of Reformed theology, it isn’t a historical accident that someone is born at a certain place and time. This represents the will of God. God put him there.

And this may also represent the judgment of God—of God’s summary judgment. Because the sinner already stands condemns in Adam, the fact that he’s born outside the pale of the gospel does not rise to the level of invincible ignorance. Social conditioning is not automatically exculpatory.

Conversely, a Christian can be saved even if some of his beliefs are without rational or moral warrant. You don’t have to be an infallible theologian in order to be saved. So social conditioning is not justificatory.

“Given then the extrinsic consideration that Christ had founded a church and had indeed authorised it to transmit His teachings in His earthly absence (an extrinsic consideration which Richard Swinburne contends is utterly uncontroversial); and given then the further fact that the church in question would have then had to be a visible entity in order for it to have been in a position to accomplish the purpose which Swinburne has ascribed to it; it would seem to follow therefore that such a visible church would be a prime candidate for being the source of true doctrines in the actual world, if such a church were still to be in existence.

From the perspective of the epistemic standpoint of my hypothetical subject, it would thus be easy to see that he would feel himself constrained to take seriously the claims that any presently existing instituional entity may make about whether or not it deserves to be identified with the aforesaid visible entity; and this especially because of what Swinburne has said are uncontroversially the intentions of Christ concerning the aforesaid visible entity (which are that it should continue to exist so as to transmit His teachings).

Now if this is granted then it will follow that a visible church established by Christ, can reasonably be expected to still be in existence today, and indeed to regard itself still ‘as authorised by Christ to transmit His teachings’; and thus plausibly to regard itself as a source of ‘true doctrines’.

Now of all the entities which are in existence today and which publicly claim for themselves the sort of commission that Swinburne ascribes to the Church founded by Christ, it would seem to me that it is only the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church which are able credibly to lay claim to any sort of historical link with the visible church that Swinburne has described.

I take my conclusion on this score as uncontroversial since other entities which may publicly claim a similar sort of commission lack the credibility of the aforementioned entities.”

Although these remarks were directed at Jason, I’ll jump in because they are equally pertinent to my own position.

The problem here is that Ben’s argument is predicated on a half-truth. Where it breaks down is in his appeal to a “historical link.”

From a Protestant perspective, you don’t need organic identity or continuity, for serial identity or continuity will do.

You don’t need to drive the same car from start to finish. You can change vehicles in the course of your journey, and still arrive at the desired destination.

Indeed, it may be necessary to change vehicles. Read Acts 7. Read Hebrews 11.

There is no nonstop flight to heaven. The church militant has to change planes, use shuttles, move from one gate, one concourse, one airport to another to get from earth to heaven.

Denominations come and go. They become corrupt. Lose their lamp-stand. Commit apostasy. A Christian is a nomad who keeps his bags packed and travels light.

For a Catholic, the Temple is the model of the church; but for a Protestant, the tabernacle is the model of the church.

The temple is a spatial paradigm: something fixed in space and time; the tabernacle is a temporal paradigm: something fluent in space and time.

We are campers. We break camp and move on when necessary. We live in tents.

Dropping the metaphor, when one denomination dies, we leave and form another. This is no doubt done more often than necessary, but that’s preferable to being chained to the decomposing corpse of a long-dead denomination.

“Can it credibly be supposed that that St Joseph would have ever approached Mary with a view to having carnal relations with her? How could he have dared to do this when he knew that his wife had conceived and brought to term God Incarnate? He was a holy man, as the scriptures tell us, and this sort of action (given his state of knowledge concerning the Christ) would seem to have been impossible to him. I don’t deny that he sinned in other ways but in this fundamental matter it is extremely difficult for me to imagine that St Joseph could have ever been in a state of mind, which would have made it congenial to him that he should attempt to have carnal knowledge of the mother of Christ. It seems to me that he would have sought to protect his wife’s chastity (and virginity) instead of seeking to undermine it, and that this was why God had appointed for him to serve as the spouse of Mary. Moreover, since Christ was present at the time it is doubtful whether (even if we may suppose him to have been inclined to form sinister intentions towards his wife) he would have dared to risk the anger of Christ by seeking actively to deprive Christ of one of the symbols of Christ’s Messianic glory.”

To this I’d say three things:

i) As a general matter, Catholicism falls into the same trap as certain legalistic sects in Evangelicalism: by forbidding so much, it ends up provoking license and thereby precipitating the very thing it fears, for people eventually chuck the whole bloody package when it becomes unnaturally restrictive.

If you forbid married clergy, and masturbation outside marriage, and oral sex within marriage, and (artificial) contraceptive sex within marriage, and divorce for infidelity or desertion, the end-result is not less sex, but more sex, because the individual finds the system to be so restrictive as to be unlivable, at which point he ditches the system entirely and simply follows the path of least resistance.

ii) The perpetual virginity of Mary is far more important to Catholic theology than it is to Protestant theology. For Evangelicals, this is a matter of indifference. We have no stake in the outcome. If Scripture taught her perpetual virginity, we could incorporate that fact into our theology without having to make any other adjustments.

By contrast, Catholicism has an enormous investment in this issue. It’s built a considerable edifice on this foundation.

Now, the evidence for or against the perpetual virginity of Mary is very sparse. But it’s my opinion that what evidence there is weighs mainly against her perpetual virginity.

Yet the answer is inconsequential to my theology. If I’m wrong, it changes nothing for me; but if you’re wrong, it changes a good deal for you.

iii) I think the fundamental problem here is that Ben is operating with the category of “sacred space” (popularized by Eliade).

We have this category in the OT ceremonial law, along with the complementary concept of sacred time (e.g. the Sabbath; the Passover).

(BTW, it’s striking that the Puritans accept sacred time [as Sabbatarians], while repudiating sacred space.)

This is the basis of ritual purity or impurity.

But this is nothing more than a symbolic convention. An emblem of holiness, but not the thing in itself. It’s a moral metaphor.

Now, Ben is treating the body of the Blessed Virgin as a localized enclosure of sacred space, like the inner sanctum of the Temple.

Her body, by having been in contact with the Christchild, becomes sacrosanct. For someone else to touch in the same place is sacrilege.

But there are two errors in this outlook:

a) It confuses real defilement with ritual defilement.

b) It assumes, for no good reason, the extension of ceremonial law to the person of the Virgin Mary.

Mary’s womb is not a sanctuary. It isn’t sanctified by contact with the Christchild.

You cannot contract holiness or pollution by touch. Not literally.

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