Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rhoda's trump card

“I'm interested here in the general practice of appealing to some allegedly absolute authority - whether that be the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon's revelation knowledge (i.e., ‘burning in the bosom’), or what have you - as a ‘trump card’ for defeating rational objections.”

That’s a prejudicial way of framing the issue. By stringing together a number of conflicting sectarian claims, the reader is bound to reject most-all of these examples. Hence, this makes the very idea of a “trump card” look suspect through guilty association. But that’s inherently unfair. The candidates should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

“In closing, I say to any of my readers who are inclined to commit the Theologian's Fallacy and appeal to the Bible, Koran, Vedas, Book of Mormon, Communist Manifesto, Magic 8-ball, or what have you, as a Trump to defeat external criticisms to your pet theories, knock it off!”

He continues his tactic of jumbling a whole lot of things together to make it look ridiculous by comparison. That’s a disreputable ploy.

“If you really have the Truth that you think you do, then you can and should be able to meet the criticisms head on without whipping out a Trump card.”

That isn’t true. We don’t have direct evidence for everything we know or believe. Sometimes the argument from authority is a perfectly legitimately appeal. Especially in the case of religious claims, revelation may be our only source of knowledge. And as long as our source of knowledge is reliable, then that quite rightly trumps extraneous objections.

“The Trumper believes that his favorite Trump (the Bible, the Koran, etc.) is or contains absolute and infallible Truth (with a capital 'T') of a vitally important sort.”

These adjectives strike me as superfluous. For example, what’s the difference between mere truth and infallible truth?

If the Bible is infallible, then the Bible will be true, but I regard infallibility is a property of inspiration.

“Moreover, the Trumper is prepared to submit to that Trump over and against, if necessary, the most secure deliverances of human reason.”

This is a bit tendentious. The Bible-believing Christian doesn’t regard unaided reason as all that secure. So he doesn’t see any great tension between reason and revelation—as if he’s having to sacrifice his intellect for the sake of his faith. Indeed, reason was never meant to operate apart from revelation.

“This he takes as evidence of his intellectual humility and sincerity, of his preparedness to sacrifice all for the Truth.”

Muslims may be hoping that Allah will give them a merit badge for their intellectual hari-kari, but that’s hardly a motive in Calvinism. Rhoda is painting with a very broad brush.

“Conversely, the Trumper sees external critics of the Trump either as ignorant children who need to be taught or as malicious rebels vainly raging against the admantine Truth with the feeble sticks of human reason.”

You mean like Jn 3:19-20 or Rom 1:18-25? I guess St. Paul and St. John were “Trumpers.” That puts me in good company.

“But how could one honestly answer 'no' to this question without committing the sin of intellectual pride?”

Since sin is a Biblical category, you can’t very well commit the sin of intellectual pride by denying that you might be wrong about the veracity of Scripture.

“If one's Trump is self-authenticating in the highest possible degree, then one would expect it should be accessible to human reason and inquiry, just like the cogito and simple conceptual truths are. In that case, of course, it can no longer be used as a Trump over and against human reason and inquiry.”

Alan seems to be assuming that a self-authenticating truth must be an undeniable truth. But that hardly follows. For a self-authenticating truth might also be an unwelcome truth, and human beings have a well-attested capacity for denying the obvious if it makes them look bad.

“But those who still have a robust sense of reality, of their own finitude and fallibility, will look at their prospective Trump (the Bible, say) and realize that they are not in fact more or even equally confident of its Trump-worthiness than they are certain of the best deliverances of human reason. And if they realize that, then they should realize that they are no longer in a position to use it as a Trump.”

But what if the Bible is the word of God? If it were divine revelation, then why would it not be in a position to trump our finite and fallible reasoning? Why does Alan think our finitude and fallibility only work against the primacy of Scripture, or for the primacy of reason, rather than vice versa?

Scepticism cuts both ways. If it undercuts religious authority, then it also undercuts rationalism.

“People who have a healthy confidence in their positions have no need for Trumps. They realize that if they have the truth they think they do, then their position will stand up to critical scrutiny without the need for ad hoc strategems (like Trumps).”

Once again, this assumes that we have discrete, independent evidence for everything we know or believe. But much of what we believe is based on secondhand information at best. Inference. Testimony. So the argument from authority is not inherently ad hoc.

“It takes a mature person, one who accepts his own limitations and fallibility but nevertheless trusts that the Truth (whatever it may turn out to be) is of greater worth than any particular doctrine, to consistently resist the urge to employ Trumps and instead to follow the argument where it leads.”

But this assumes there is some “absolute,” “infallible” truth out there, which “trumps” all rival claimants. Why does Alan automatically disqualify Biblical revelation from assuming that role? And what does he think takes its place? At the end of the day, Alan substitutes his own ad hoc trump card. And that’s because you need truth to find truth.

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