Home > Scripture, Theology > Proof, Evidence, and Remote Propositions

Proof, Evidence, and Remote Propositions

There’s a lot going on in this debate over the Bible’s trustworthiness in its theological statement.  Thank you to Nick, Drew, and Tim for your comments.  You have demonstrated several ways in which this argument needs to be sharpened.  So in response I intend to offer three posts.  In this post I will respond to the critiques against my argument and modify it at certain points.  Second, I will post the modified argument without the argumentation between propositions.  Finally in the third post I will lay out the counter-argument that Drew and Nick have offered as I understand it.

First, Nick writes, “I have a problem with… the language of ‘evidence’ in regards to ‘theology’ (specificially Trinitarian theology) which makes me uncomfortable with the context of its use… [I]n regard to his use of the term ‘evidence’ I need further elaboration on exactly what he means.”  By evidence, I mean something that provides a reason to accept the veracity of it’s object.  To say that we have evidence for something does not entail that we have proof for it.  (On the other hand, to say that we have proof for something does entail that we have evidence for it.)  Though this is not the term Nick himself might have chosen, I think that it does resolve his objection.

I am not expecting or arguing against a proof for the doctrine of the Trinity, so Placher’s quote has no bearing on my argument.  Nevertheless, I see no reason to accept that providing a proof for God leads to idolatry.  I can provide proof for the existence of my wife without having to define her (in the sense Placher assumes in the quote).  Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity does in fact constitute a definition of God.  If Placher is consistent in his logic, then the doctrine of the Trinity is idolatrous.  But I digress.

Nick disagrees with calling untestable propositions “remote” because it leads to an equating of cosmology and theology.  But there is nothing to disagree with here.  I have merely chosen a term to describe a kind of proposition I had already described: a proposition that, when originally written, was untestable.   We can call these propositions anything Nick would like without affecting the argument.  We could call them OU propositions (for ‘originally untestable’).  We could call them Pickled Pigs Feet for all I care.  So long as we are clear on the definition, the argument stands.

Tim writes, “As you affirm the ‘trustworthiness’ of the bible earlier on in your argument, you’re implicitly affirming the historicity of the text.”  Drew writes, “There is absolutely no historical evidence that we can verify other than the text of the Bible itself which can substantiate any of these assertions in a purely historical-critical manner.”  By my own definition, historical propositions fall are remote propositions because they are not (empirically) testable.  Similarly, Tim reminds me that if something is testable, it is testable at all times regardless of whether people had the capabilities to test it.

Allow me to modify the definition of Remote Proposition.  Let a Remote Proposition be a proposition about a matter that its original proponents were not capable of verifying.  They were capable of verifying historical evidence, and on the whole have given us a trustworthy historical record.  Thus Biblical statements about theology are Remote propositions; Biblical statemtents about cosmology are Remote propositions; Biblical statements about historical events are not Remote propositions.

Tim writes, “Things about the physical world can, presumably, at some point be tested.  Things about theology can never be tested.”  Though nothing about this statement affects the argument, I am still not willing to accept this statement.  What reason exactly is there to assume that theology can never be tested?  Not even in 1000 years?  10,000 years? 1 million years?  Are you arguing that it is impossible by definition to ever study God scientifically?  People two millennia ago had no idea how their cosmology could ever be tested, but they could not imagine the possibilities of things like cameras, satellites, or spaceships.  What reason is there to think that there aren’t similar advances that could be made that would give us more direct access to God?  I don’t know what such things might be, but I can’t think of any reason to simply assume we could never have access to empirical theological data.

Drew argues that the various miracles in the Bible are not verifiable.  If I want to include the Resurrection, then the Bible is not trustworthy by my definition.  But it seems to me that mainstream Biblical scholarship has affirmed the very point I made: though some events do not meet the criteria to be historically trustworthy (e.g. the Resurrection), the documents as a whole are in fact trustworthy.  That is to say that the historical facts they record are more likely to be true than to be false.

Nick accuses me of “mixing [my] cosmological apples with [my] theological oranges.”  But I have taken great pains to define my terms.  I have defined what a Remote Proposition is, then I have applied that definition to the Bible’s statements about cosmology its statements about theology.  What Nick is really objecting to I think is proposition (6), that the Bible’s Trinitarian propositions are remote propositions.  He has given a brief reason why he thinks these propositions can in fact be verified, namely through the experiences of believers.  I think this is the basic point of Drew’s comment also.  It is this experiential argument that I hope to draw out in my third post.

I am becoming increasingly unhappy with the term Trinitarian proposition because these propositions, even when taken as a whole, are not in themselves Trinitarian.  Rather, they entail a Trinitarian doctrine.  I think it is more accurate to call them proto-Trinitarian propositions.  Again, this change does not affect the logic of the argument itself.

Finally, Tim accuses me of making generalizations from the part to the whole.  But I have not argued that “theology must have the same property [as cosmology],” nor have I argued that “its more likely that theology have this property than not,” at least not quite in this form.  I have argued that it constitutes evidence for it having the same property.  To apply this to his dog/cat analogy, the fact that cats dislike water does constitute evidence that dogs also dislike water.  But we have stronger evidence that dogs do like water: we’ve seen it demonstrated.  So my argument differs from the dog/cat example in that I am arguing that there is no counter-evidence.  (Nick and Drew think there is counter-evidence, and this is the matter to which I will attempt to move the argument in my third post.)I think I have responded to all of the various critiques against the argument as it stands, so next I will restate the argument in its modified terms.  There was a lot here, so if I missed anything, please let me know.  It is quite possible that I didn’t catch everything or misunderstood some point or other.  But otherwise, I think I have answered all the objections except the experiential counter-argument.

Categories: Scripture, Theology
  1. January 27, 2008 at 12:44 am

    I still have to disagree with your argument that if A and B share one property, that fact makes it likely (or serves as evidence) that they share others. I did not use an example absurd enough, so here are a few others.

    “Cats and giraffes both have four legs. Cats like playing with yarn. Therefore, there is evidence that giraffes like playing with yarn.”

    “Human beings and lizards are both vertebrates. Lizards can regenerate their tails. Therefore, there is evidence that human beings can regenerate their tails.”

    “Rhinoceroses and unicorns both have horns. Rhinoceroses exist. Therefore, there is evidence that unicorns exist.”

  2. January 27, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Tim, you make a strong case against my proposition (8). I am attempting to make an inductive argument, and somehow there is a proper way to phrase such an argument, though I wouldn’t stake my life on bet that I did it the right way. That your first example above has, “cats like playing with yarn,” shows that there is a valid form of the inductive argument. You have never tested every single cat or arrived at this through some other deductive method. Rather you have observed that some cats like yarn and inferred that all (or at least the vast majority of) cats like yarn. But your third argument gets me. Rhinoceros horns provide absolutely no evidence that unicorns exist. I will have to think about what makes this different from saying that cats like yarn, and then whether my argument fits better with cats or with unicorns.

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