Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Brother, can you paradigm?

Roderick Chisholm famously delineated two divergent approaches to epistemology. He distinguished between "methodists", who begin with criteria, and "particularists", who begin with examples. Methodism is more deductive while particularism is more inductive.

Recently, as I was debating a convert to Catholicism, that distinction came to mind. The convert has a philosophical turn of mind. 

There are different types of converts to Catholicism. In my experience, Catholicism is appealing to philosophically-oriented guys. They are methodists. They are captivated by the Catholic paradigm. It's a complex paradigm that massages their intellectual pride. And its complexity renders it resistant to easy disproof. The Catholic paradigm has escape clauses, so that when you raise evidential objections to Catholicism, they can evade the objections by making vague appeals to the theory of development, or degrees of authority, and so on. 

As I was talking to this convert, I mentioned dramatic reversals in Catholic theology, such as salvation outside the church, and the contrast between mainstream Catholic Bible scholarship and the anti-modernist injunctions of the BPC c. Leo XIII.

It became evident that I was drawing a blank. The convert had no idea what I was referring to. 

That's because the convert is a methodist rather than a particularist. He didn't begin with facts about Catholicism, but the entrancing paradigm. As a result, his conversion is deeply uninformed. He's ignorant of many historical facts about Catholicism which he needs to know to properly assess the evidence for or against Catholicism. And that's because his point of entry into Catholicism isn't primarily evidential; rather, he's smitten by the idea of Catholicism.  

Now I think we need to strike a balance between methodism and particularism. We shouldn't be straight particularists. We need to steer clear of falling into the trap of positivism. Facts must be interpreted. What counts as factual is in itself an interpretive judgment. Evaluating evidence is a value-laden enterprise. So we need criteria.

But by the same token, we shouldn't be straight methodists. We mustn't operate with a fact-free, a priori filter that has no evidential grounding in reality. An extraneous interpretive grid we impose on the world, which arbitrarily screens out inconvenient facts. We need to combine inductive and deductive approaches. 

In my experience, converts to Catholicism use the Catholic paradigm as a shield to ward off factual objections, but how do they know that their paradigm is true in the first place? Is there a tipping point where the paradigm takes on too much water? Or is the Catholic paradigm unfalsifiable? If so, how is that distinguishable from a religious cult?  


  1. Again, the same objection could be used by an atheist against Christianity. An orthodox Christian will never accept a possibility of error in the Bible, no matter what argument an atheist present - even if a Christian does not know a reply to athiest's objection, he will never grant a possibility of error in the Bible, knowing that there must be some explanation. This is of course correct, but an atheist could say just what you did: "Christians use the Biblical paradigm as a shield to ward off factual objections, but how do they know that their paradigm is true in the first place? Or is the Biblical paradigm unfalsifiable?". And yes, the Biblical paradigm in Protestant Christianity is indeed unfalsifiable, because a Christian presupposes truthfulness of the Bible and will never grant a possibility that there might be error in it, no matter what evidence is presented. Even if there are some Biblical passages or claims which seem to be problematic on the surface, we know they can't be errors or contradictions, because the Bible is true. Now, put the Catholic Church in place of the Bible and you have exactly the same reasoning. However, Protestants are using a double standard and are happy with this reasoning in regard to the Bible, but attack when it comes to the Catholic Church, which is inconsistent.

    As I said several times here, the final authority - whether the Bible or the Magisterium - is always taken as a presupposition (that does not mean without evidence, though), because otherwise we face infinite regression of verifying authorities.

    In other words, if Steve wants Catholics to be genuinly open to the possibility that the Catholic Church is not true, he must be genuinly open to the possibility of the Bible being false when talking to an atheist. Otherwise, he is using double standard in terms of epistemology.

    1. i) You need to learn how to distinguish between verifiability and falsifiability. The rules of evidence can't be pulled out of thin air. There needs to be some factual evidence feeding into the paradigm. The point of my post is not merely that their paradigm is unfalsifiable, but unverifiable. How do they know it is true in the first place? What kind of evidence is used to establish the paradigm? And is that the same kind of evidence which, in principle, could disconfirm the paradigm?

      This isn't just a matter of judging the paradigm by an external standard, but by its internal consistency, or lack thereof.

      ii) In addition, the theory of development casts a cloud of uncertainty over all of Catholic teaching. The past is always hostage to some future unforeseeable development. The circular appeal to what's irreformable: if it changes, it can't be irreformable.

      That's not something you can tu quoque in reference to evangelicalism, because Catholicism is not supposed to be comparable to evangelicalism in the regard. The raison d'être for Catholicism is provide an organ of certainly lacking in evangelicalism.

      iii) Furthermore, there's the problem of ad hoc caveats, where gradations of authority can be invoked willy-nilly to save face. That's not comparable to evangelicalism. In classic Protestant theology, the Bible isn't infallible some of the time but fallible at other times, but infallible throughout. By contrast, Catholic apologists play shell-games regarding gradations of authority, which because circular (see above).

      iv) Finally, the Bible has multiple lines of evidence where there's nothing comparable for Catholicism. So, once again, the attempted parallel fails.