Friday, December 14, 2007

Dan Phillips Doubts the Value of Doubt

This morning's post over a TeamPyro is a little riff by Dan Phillips on doubt.

Dan Phillips:
Our unbelief has to be unfathomable to God, as was the disciples' to Christ.
To say that God knows and understands all things is not to say that God finds everything understandable, if you take my meaning.
The first sentence is absurd on its face; Dan believes in an omniscient God, right? Of course he does, and the second sentence provides the equivocation on that statement. God understands, he just doesn't like it or sympathize with it.

Pressed on this a bit in the comments section, Dan clarifies a bit:
Dan Phillips:
We generally use "understandable" in the sense of taking something as reasonable, to be expected, and thus worth acceptance. God knows and knows the meaning of everything. That is not to say (to say the least!) that God shares our view of everything, or finds our view reasonable, rational, and acceptable.

Here, the post-resurrection Jesus clearly finds their unbelief astonishing. It isn't that He doesn't know literally everything there is to know about it. Actually, it's that He does, and He knows it to be nuts.
This is thoroughly incoherent. It's double-speak. On the one hand, Jesus is supposed to know all things, and on the other, Dan has Jesus thinking doubts about him are "nuts" -- irrational, crazy, unfounded.

If Jesus knows all things, then he fully understands that from a reasoning standpoint, his resurrection, even preceded by preparatory miracles, is completely without precedent, and violates a set of basic understandings rational minds develop about the world. Jesus would understand that the people around him are thoroughly convinced that when a man dies, he's dead, that's it. It's permanent.

So it's perfectly rational for someone to be incredulous at the news that a person they had be killed at the hand of the Romans and buried in a tomb was once again alive, and making appearances to his friends and family. It's such an extraordinary event that it be would irrational to accept such reports at face value. That nullifies and jepoardies everything we know about human physiology, about life and death. Now, maybe something has happened that calls all that into question, but only a fool would simply abandons the witness of one's experiences, and the collected knowledge of those all around him, at first sign of a report that a dead man had come back to life after three days.

If that's not clear, imagine a colleague informing you over the water-cooler on Tuesday morning that your Jim, a colleague who had tragically died of masive heart attack last Friday, and who you had seen in his casket at a reviewal on Sunday, had come back to life! In fact, Jim was planning to be back in the office by mid-day Thursday.

Would you doubt such a report? What would you think about someone who simply smiled, and believed, and said "Wow, that's great news. I'll be happy to see him."?

We're deeply reliant -- necessarily dependent -- on our ability to observe, establish patterns, and expectations, and apply skepticism and credulity. And yet, Dan Phillips supposes that our basic rational processing of new claims and propositions -- doubt in the face of the extraordinary and fantastic is "nuts" -- irrational. He's arguing that our rational behavior is actually irrational.

But wait! Since Jesus knows the truth, doesn't all that doubt become "nuts" then, to Jesus, anyway? No, as per Dan, Jesus would understand the rational basis (proper function) of man's thinking about such matters, and would be fully aware of the limited information man has to go on, which, Jesus' miracles prior to his resurrection notwithstanding, points completely at the permanence of death. Jesus, understanding all this, should not be the least surprised at this -- it's rational behavior.

Commenter "StrongTower" helps make this point a little further down in the comments, if unwittingly:

In a court of law we must find quilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A reasoned doubt is based upon some finding of fact. Doubt that is based upon no precedent is unreasonable, and therefore without understanding.

There was no reason for those to whom Christ was speaking to doubt, "If you do not believe my word, believe for the sake of these works..." This then goes to the heart. Unreasoned doubt is bound in the darkness of understanding. Where there is no light there is no reason. They stumble but they do not know over what. Why do you doubt? Seeing as there is no reason to give light to your doubt, it is not understandable that you do.
In a court of law, a man's understanding that death was permanent would be held as perfectly reasonable, overwhelmingly indicated by precedent. StrongTower nicely demonstrate the "black is white" inversion that proceeds from Dan's double-speak.


Jon said...

You know, Touchstone, I hate to agree with the Triabloggers, but I don't know how you can on the one hand post such reasonable things as you have here and yet on the other hand still claim to be a Christian. I take it you're not just a fideist. You seem to think evidence matters. Well, if evidence matters, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as you seem to suggest here, then how can you sustain any kind of belief that Christianity is rational? Seems to me that the belief that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which to me is an obvious truism, is completely fatal to any kind of Christianity that wants to base itself on a fair examination of evidence.

Why be a Christian at all? Is it about an inner witness or a personal experience or something? In other words, is it really not about evidence?

Touchstone said...


Fair questions to ask. I don't have a good reason. There's a lot of social inertia, given my thirty-plus years as a believer, and disruptive as any departure would be from a practical standpoint, I'm under no illusions that that's anything but a coward's reason to (pretend to) believe.

But, I'm not at all apologetic about doing some diligence on this, taking it slowly. Is Christianity really just fideism trying to dress itself up in the garb of reason and rationality? To read Dan's post today, that seems the case. After a good while of thinking about this, and talking with a lot of different folks from a wide selection of the different streams of Christianity, that's where the evidence points.

A post like this is useful as it makes me articulate, at least roughly, my analysis. There's no expectation of changing any positions even a little bit with the folks at Triablogue, but those exchanges are useful in that they leave a record, for myself, and also for others reading who may be in the same kind of position (and I've gotten connected with a good number of them, now). This record "documents" for me the poverty of Triablogue-style Calvinism, for example. It's not just me imagining it, extrapolating from their posts. Pushing on areas I'm concerned with, the anti-reason, the disingenuous orientation to the rest of the world, and the dishonesty about their own fideism just gets laid bare in black and white.

Don't overweight the exchanges I've had with the T-Bloggers, though. They live down in the "intellectual ghetto" of Christianity. There's a lot of other exchanges going on in private forums and email loops I'm on that take more care and thought to work through -- Triablogue and TeamPyro are sort of self-caricaturing extremes, and if they were the criteria themselves, I'd have no choice by my conscience but to reject with a vengeance. But, there's a lot of more thoughtful and genuine discussion to be had than what you see in either of those hangouts.

Hope that helps. I'm concerned with the evidence, ultimately, and if that disqualifies me as a Christian, so be it.