Sunday, January 3, 2010

Believing and Knowing P. II

In the first part of Believing and Knowing, I stated the following:

"For how can conversation happen when belief is taken to be knowledge? In other words, how can anything intelligible be conveyed about any one of the tenets of Christianity if a Christian is convinced that what s/he believes is what s/he knows? The dissonance this creates in the mind of the observant listener shuts down any chances of mutually beneficial dialogue since this blurring of distinctions results in wrong-headed dogmatism, fanatacism, and extremism."

Wrong-headed dogmatism. First, what is 'dogmatism'? The common understanding is that it is "unfounded positive assertion in matters of opinion; arrogant assertions of opinions as truth." However, in the history of the Christian religion, 'dogmatism' has been defined quite differently. Christian dogmatism is understood, basically, as "core principles that must be upheld by all followers" of Christ. For example, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; one cannot be a Christian if one does not believe in the Holy Trinity; one cannot be a Christian if one believes that all religions are basically the same, and lead to the same place. And just to advance this a little further, the Catholic church denotes 'dogma' as the following:

"But according to a long-standing usage a dogma is now understood to be a truth appertaining to faith or morals, revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by tradition, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful. It might be described briefly as a revealed truth defined by the Church — but private revelations do not constitute dogmas, and some theologians confine the word defined to doctrines solemnly defined by the pope or by a general council, while a revealed truth becomes a dogma even when proposed by the Church through her ordinary magisterium or teaching office. A dogma therefore implies a twofold relation: to Divine revelation and to the authoritative teaching of the Church."

Even in the Catholic definition of 'dogma', the emphasis is placed on the disposition to believe as if what is believed is what is known.
This is a dangerous mistake to make, in my estimation, since the disposition to believe a certain set of propositions does not entail knowing those propositions to be true. It may very well be the case that my baptist friend believes dancing is evil because it inevitably leads to sex. But he may just be relieved to know that most of the dancing population of the world finds itself coitally-challenged at the end of the tango just as much as at the end of a harlequin. There is simply no correspondence between what my baptist friend believes and what is known. To therefore make a dogmatic assertion that 'dancing is evil because it inevitably leads to sex' is an empty, and useless proposition unless it can be backed with actual knowledge. And what is more, the assertion above begs the question of whether 'sex' itself is considered evil because of its association with dancing (which is believed but not known to be 'evil'). Nothing is actually known in this case except that a certain young man believes a useless and empty-headed proposition that masquerades as a known truth, but has no knowledge to substantiate its claim.

That being said, believing such a proposition is a dangerously wrong-headed thing to do. It is a wrong-headed dogma unfit for the thinking Christian. But how many other dogmatic assertions can come under the same scrutiny? For example, what is actually known about Mary's purported assumption? Quite literally, nothing. It is simply an assertion from tradition that is believed en masse because it has always been believed. But the glaringly obvious fact of the matter is that nothing is known about Mary's assumption, not even whether it happened or not. It is a dogmatic expression ardently believed by billions of Catholics that has no factual basis in reality. It is a wrong-headed dogma disguising itself as a known truth.

A little more, and we'll move on. If it is the case that Christian dogma is essentially propositional assertions that Christians believe but do not necessarily know, how much of what we take to be 'truth' is actually true? I don't mean to continuously pit belief and knowledge against each other; they are certainly not opposed in all ways. However, to figure out where belief and knowledge coalesce we must be willing to visit the possibility that they don't simply agree with each other because it would make things less difficult otherwise. There is no reason to dogmatically hold to mere propositions as if those same propositions were not only their own context but their own content, too. What is believed has a direct impact on what, and how you come to know things. And conversely, what you know will impact what you believe.

So which, if any, of the Christian dogmas are knowably true? And which, if any, of the Christian dogmas are simply believed to be true? It's a frightening question to ask, really, for it opens up the possibility that what you may believe may, in fact, be wrong. And, in fact, those beliefs may be wrong because there's no way to know if they're true. And to suggest that that's why we have to take the Christian testimony on 'faith' is to suggest the same thing as simply believing without knowing.


Edward said...

I suppose Roman Catholics will think that, by relying on the reliable testimony of "the Church", they are furnished with knowledge about Mary's assumption.

(This would be a bit like being furnished with knowledge about Australia by relying on all the various 2nd hand reports we've all heard about it?)

I'm inclined to think that, by relying on such a reliable source, we would be furnished with knowledge. But I don't think that the source in this case is reliable on this matter. Still, determining just what sources are reliable is tricky.

Edward said...

Taking a good looking at middle size objects in good light (and while sober) is pretty clearly a reliable source.

The various testimonies concerning the existence of Australia -- given how easy they could be publicly falsified, how interesting it would be to publicly falsify them, and that they haven't been falsified -- also seem like a reliable source.

It's possible that God sovereignly guided "the Church" to develop her doctrine in such and such a way that this doctrine bubbled up. If so, then maybe some people have knowledge of Mary's assumption. Again, I don't think so, for now.

Christopher said...


Yes, methodology matters. Second-hand reports are also labelled "hearsay", and are not, in standard academic, or judicial parlance given much credence, if any.

So, while Australia may not be falsifiable, Mary's assumption hardly rings in on the same pitch: there's no way to either falsify it or prove it. It is a non sequitur, at best; non compos mentis, at worst. If I remember correctly (and I may not), Mary's assumption was a matter of indifference in Lutheran circles; adiaphoron. It's flat-out rejected by most evangelicals. The only people who nod toward it at all are the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

That's not necessarily to anyone's discredit, but it does show that despite methodology -- in this case, taking to be true what has been believed to be true for a long time -- what one believes to be so, is not necessarily what is so. What is believed is not what is known. The whole muddle is a crazy quasi-hermeneutic maze of presumption and perplexity.

Edward said...

I guess what I'm trying to get at is this: RCs don't believe in Mary's assumption simply because it's traditional. And they don't trust tradition simply because it's traditional to trust it.

They believe in God's providential guidance of tradition and the magisterium, right?

This additional belief makes the source -- tradition, or maybe a certain stream of tradition -- seem reliable.

This belief, if true, seems to justify (or render sensible) their belief in the reliability of tradition -- that tradition is an organ of revelation that we can trust thank's to God providential oversight of that tradition.

I'm trying to be fair to the RC position, even though I don't agree with it. I think there's a way to believe in Mary's assumption that, while wrong/mistaken/untrue (in my view), is reasonable/rational in some sense.

Of course belief in God's providential guidance of tradition is itself now traditional, right? So this source can't really be independently verified, right? Maybe by direct, mystical revelations that vouch for tradition?

Christopher said...


Thank you for clarifying. And I apologise that I didn't quite catch all of what you were intending.

Yes, you are right that Catholics "believe in God's providential guidance of tradition and the magisterium", and that that has become a traditional belief in itself. You are also right that because of that, it cannot be independently verified. This, of course, places the RC system into a hermetic seal; it's a closed system that self-validates right from its dogmatic foundantions.

Edward said...

So, why should someone jump into this RC 'hermeneutical circle'?

And/or, why should someone stay in the circle?

How tight is the 'seal'? Is jumping in and staying in a matter of sheer will?

I think this is where things really start to get interesting.

One thing we might try doing is to inhabit the RC position on revelation, and take a look at the world "through its glasses" so to speak. We can try to probe the world with it. Do we contact the world as it is when we do this?

Another thing we might do is ask if it's coherent.

Another thing we might do is ask how rich and robust and subtle the hermeneutical circle is. Very thin hermeneutical circles that require us to ignore too much of what we otherwise seem to know simply aren't credible.

Consider this hermeneutical circle: "Everything I write is true. What I just wrote is true because everything I write is true."

There is a kind of insane logical precision to this. In a sense, it is reasonable, but it's hilariously narrow and just doesn't square with what we already seem to know.

This reminds of a great Chesterton quote about how insanity isn't a matter of loosing reason, but of having only "reason" and no good sense.

I wonder why I don't jump into the RC hermeneutical circle? I think it's a richer and more subtle circle than a lot of people think. Maybe it's because it doesn't square with other things a seem to know? Or maybe it's because I don't buy the RC arguments for the necessity of the RC Magisterium in order for any sort of revelation to be secure and trustworthy?