epistemology

A Hijab and a Philosopher

holy-trinity.gif

By Justin Wishart

A short time ago, Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College, was suspended for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.[1] Many people came out in support of Wheaton, while others supported Dr. Hawkins. The main controversy was over her Facebook comment: "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." One supporter of Hawkins is Catholic philosopher Dr. Francis Beckwith. He wrote two articles in support of Hawkins, and by extension his pope.[2] Much ink has been spilled commenting on Hawkins' and Wheaton's actions, so this article will focus on and analyze Beckwith's articles.

It's important to recognize the implications here and Beckwith's desire to defend this position. "As the Church declared in Nostra Aetate (1965): '[Muslims] adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men. . . . Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet.'" Beckwith views this as Catholic dogma, and his desire to defend Hawkins becomes evident.

The Argument

His first argument is to point out that just because people use different names doesn't mean that they are talking about something different. "Take, for example, the names 'Muhammed Ali' and 'Cassius Clay.' Although they are different terms, they refer to the same thing, for each has identical properties. Whatever is true of Ali is true of Clay and vice versa." Beckwith points out that if one person uses one name for God and another person uses a different name for God, this does not mean that they are speaking about different gods. I agree. Even Christians in Middle Eastern countries call God "Allah." "So the fact that Christians may call God 'Yahweh' and Muslims call God 'Allah' makes no difference if both 'Gods' have identical properties."

This is where Beckwith gets into his first bit of trouble. If his above argument is true, and I think it is, then the object in question must have "identical properties." Anyone who has compared the Islamic idea of tawheed and the Christian idea of Trinity knows that they don't share "identical properties." Beckwith anticipates this objection. He attempts to argue that Islam and Christianity share concepts that are identical. "In the same way, there is only one being that is essentially God: the uncaused, perfect, unchanging, self-subsistent, eternal Creator and sustainer of all that which receives its being from another." Both faiths have these identical beliefs about God; Beckwith rightly calls this "classical theism."

Yet, the immediate question focuses around the differences between the two faiths. Beckwith anticipates this, as well, and argues that just because people have different notions about something does not mean they are talking about different things. He uses this analogy:

Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of "being a father to several of SHs children." On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of "being a father to several of SHs children."

Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not. . . . Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity [How does he know this?], but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do. Does that mean that Augustine, Aquinas, and Graham do not worship the same God as Abraham and Moses? . . . The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person—whether human or divine—does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.

This is the distinction that holds Beckwith's argument together. From this argument, he concludes: "For these reasons, it would a real injustice if Wheaton College were to terminate the employment of Professor Hawkins simply because those evaluating her case cannot make these subtle, though important, philosophical distinctions."

Analysis

For clarity, I will list Beckwith's points succinctly:

1. Just because people use different names does not mean they are talking about different things. If they have "identical properties," they are the same thing.

2. Muslims and Christians ascribe many identical properties to God, which is called "classical theism."

3. Just because Muslims have less knowledge of the true God, doesn't mean they are necessarily talking about a different god.

My analysis will focus primarily on point #3, as I essentially agree with the first two points.

The major blunder in Beckwith's argument is that he confuses epistemology and ontology. Epistemology focuses around knowledge, for example, how one gets to know God; and ontology focuses around being, for example, what God is. Looking at Beckwith's analogy, one sees this epistemological focus. It is because "Bob does not find the evidence convincing" that he doesn't believe that Thomas Jefferson "sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings." This clearly has no bearing on whether Thomas Jefferson actually "sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings." Now, let's make his analogy into an ontological analogy. If Fred's Thomas Jefferson actually did "[sire] several children with his slave Sally Hemings" and Bob's Thomas Jefferson actually did not "[sire] several children with his slave Sally Hemings," then they cannot both be talking about the "Third President of the United States."

To say that God is triune, or to say that God is tawheed, is not an epistemological expression, but an ontological one. As the Athanasian Creed states, "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God."[3] This is clearly an ontological claim. Likewise, when Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips explains the meaning of tawheed, he says "that Allah is One, without partner in His dominion . . . One without similitude in His essence and attributes . . . and One without rival in His divinity and in worship."[4] Since these are both ontological statements, expressions of what God is, the differences actually do make "God" different between the two faiths.

To make matters worse, the knowledgeable Christian deniestawheed and the knowledgeable Muslim denies the Trinity. It's not as if Muslims believe in "classical theism," which doesn't contradict the Trinity, and when shown the Trinity he accepts it. It is precisely the opposite: it's exactly the knowledge that has been shown to him that he rejects. To lump in Abraham and Moses into this discussion is to say that Moses only has "classical theism" in mind when talking about God, a dubious claim, and if shown the Trinity he would have rejected it as well. Does Beckwith believe this? Sure, it is probably correct to say that Paul had a more complete view of God than Moses. But Moses' view of God never contradicts Paul's. Yet, Mohammad's view does.[5] It is the contradictions that equally matter. For Beckwith to focus on what Muslims and Christians agree on is to not really have a meaningful discussion on this subject. It's not that Muslims have a lack of knowledge, it's that they reject this knowledge. The laws of thought demand that we cannot be talking about the same thing anymore. Muslims do not worship the same God as we do.

Space does not allow me to point out that God Himself does not think He is like any other God, or provide the copious scriptural evidence to support this. Molech and Yahweh also shared identical properties, but God clearly didn't say the Canaanites worshiped the same God. Why should we accept Beckwith's "classical theism" as the benchmark for sameness while denying the similarities found within other religious conceptions of God? On what basis? Beckwith has not provided a meaningful argument here. It is disappointing that someone of Beckwith's calibre produced this fallacious argument because he "cannot make these subtle, though important, philosophical distinctions."

[1] Manya Brachear Pachman and Marwa Eltagouri, "Wheaton College Says View of Islam, Not Hijab, God Christian Teacher Suspended," Chicago Tribune, December 15, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-wheaton-college-professor-larycia-hawkins-20151216-story.html.

[2] Francis J. Beckwith, "Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?," The Catholic Thing, December 17, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.thecatholicthing.org/2015/12/17/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god/, and Beckwith, "Why Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God," The Catholic Thing, January 7, 2016, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.thecatholicthing.org/2016/01/07/why-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god/. All quotations attributed to Beckwith are taken from these two articles.

[3] "The Athanasian Creed," New Advent, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02033b.htm.

[4] Abu Ameenah Bilaal Philips, The Fundamentals of Tawḥeed (Islamic Monotheism), 2nd ed. (Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House, 2005.), 17.

[5] "O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, 'Three'; desist—it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs" (Quran 4:171, Saheeh International translation).

Matt Dillahunty's Illogical Worldview

By Justin Wishart

I recently watched a debate between Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty.[1] I have been mildly interested in Dillahunty's show The Atheist Experience[2] over the years. The question under debate was whether it was reasonable to believe God exists. I was pleasantly surprised that Dillahunty presented what I think is his epistemological position. Ten Bruggencate suggested that Dillahunty's worldview leads to absurdity. Is this true?

The most striking feature of Dillahunty's epistemology is that he gives a two-level epistemological view. The first level, which I will call the metaphysical level, says that we cannot know reality. "As such, many philosophers have simply acknowledged they cannot be absolutely certain about anything, including the claim that they cannot be absolutely certain."[3] The second level, which I call the subjective level, is that one must accept certain presuppositions as true, with no argument given for them as all arguments are derived from them.

My worldview begins with the recognition of the logical absolutes,[4] that they are true and the foundation of reliable thoughts, as such that we can derive sensible conclusions from them. While I don't support absolute certainty in the ultimate sense . . . the logical absolutes represent maximal certainty, which may or may not be absolute, and anything directly deduced from those absolutes, like math and set theory, are also maximally certain, while things indirectly derived from those are reasonably certainties.[5]

So, how does Dillahunty combine the metaphysical level with the subjective level in his overall epistemological scheme?

In the past I have said that we can be absolutely certain that we exist, that the logical absolutes are true, and about things like exoteric claims and labels, but my expression of absolute certainty on those topics are done within the context of an epistemological view known as foundherentism (which is a combination of foundationalism and coherentalism). In a nutshell, in the rules of chess it is absolutely wrong to move your rook diagonally. And while I reject that we can be absolutely certain from an externalist point of view, we can still be absolutely certain within the meshed framework, and it makes no sense to appeal to some absolute truth which it isn't wrong to move your rook diagonally . . . I will simply refer to this as maximal certainty, and that maximal certainty may or may not map to ultimate certainty.[6]

To put it succinctly, while we can deduce certainty at the subjective level, we cannot obtain certainty at the metaphysical level. An important consequence of this scheme is that all claims to knowledge, including what he calls maximal certainty, are predicated on the understanding that nothing is knowable at the metaphysical level. It follows that Dillahunty's scheme is fundamentally pragmatic, and he recognizes this: "I will concede, as do most philosophers, that there appears to be no . . . absolute solution. But I am stuck dealing with the reality I experience until someone offers me a way out."[7] It's not that Dillahunty's subjective level is capable of deriving true beliefs, but that it has worked best for him. Yet, a Christian could offer the same explanation, but they would have a different subjective level foundational set than Dillahunty. This seems necessarily true as all our experiences are different. How does Dillahunty avoid the charge of situational arbitrarity?[8] When viewing this at the metaphysical level, there is no reasonable belief for Dillahunty at all, much less a reasonable belief in God. This would, of course, include his subjective-level epistemology scheme. This refutes anything he may say at the subjective level and his words are reduced to mindless babbling.

Dillahunty thinks that a valid accounting of knowledge isn't even important. "Whether or not my beliefs count as knowledge,[9] under my definition or Sye's or someone else's, is irrelevant to the topic of this debate and it's largely irrelevant in any context that isn't expressly an academic philosophical discussion about knowledge."[10] Does he really think that one's belief corresponding to reality has no bearing on the reasonableness of the belief in God? Well, since he brought up Ten Bruggencate, let's see what Ten Bruggencate said about this relationship. "Why is it reasonable to believe that God exists? Quite simply, because it is true that he exists."[11] The truth of the issue is exactly the standard that Ten Bruggencate uses to define reasonableness. This refutes Dillahunty's statement, and one's belief being real has much bearing in a conversation with Ten Bruggencate. It also seems that Dillahunty himself recognizes the importance of beliefs corresponding to reality. "It's in our best interest to believe in as many true things, and as few false things, as is possible. Making our internal map of reality as accurate as possible."[12] It appears that for Dillahunty, the correspondence of our beliefs to reality is important, unless he contends that this statement isn't reasonable. Why is it reasonable to believe in as many true things as possible if the truth of the belief has no bearing on the belief's reasonableness? This seems contradictory.

However, Dillahunty is insistent that we look at his epistemological scheme from the subjective level, so we will. He seems unaware that he presents a trilemma:

  1. Since he has made the term "reasonable" a result of one's subjective level of epistemology, of course the existence of God becomes reasonable to the Christian. It is also the case that it is true that it is unreasonable to believe in God's existence for the Atheist. This makes it true that it is both reasonable and unreasonable to believe in the existence of God. Since there is no way, according to Dillahunty, to know if one's view corresponds to reality, we seem stuck with this contradiction, "and that way madness lies."[13]
  2. Or, if he insists that the unreasonableness of God's existence is objectively more reasonable still, his position leads to a case of special pleading. He believes his subjective level is superior to the Christian's subjective level, but cannot provide valid and sound argument that is supported by evidence.[14] Dillahunty may appeal to philosophical consensus as much as he likes, but he knows this does nothing to prove the reality of his view. The rules soften when applied to his position, while they are in full force when applied to Ten Bruggencate.
  3. If he makes it about the reasonableness of a belief, with no reference to its correspondence to reality, then he must provide valid, sound criteria. Since the only thing left to him is the subjective level, any criteria will be circular. What is reasonable is dictated by the subjective level, and the subjective level seems derived from its reasonableness.

I didn't focus on more minor issues in Dillahunty's presentation, as they were legion. I will only mention one as an example. "'You can't know anything unless you know everything or know someone who knows everything.' Well, I would like to see the proof of that rather than just an assertion or a demand that we prove them wrong or a fallacious shifting of the burden of proof."[15] He says one cannot use a "prove me wrong" defense as this is a "fallacious shifting of the burden of proof." Then why earlier did he provide this argument in support of his subjective view?

I don't believe that the question "Why are the logical absolutes true?" expresses a sensible concept. For me it's like asking, "Why is one, one?" Because it is and it doesn't appear it could be any other way and if it could be any other way, give any evidence to the contrary, you need to demonstrate it, and that's a very heavy burden of proof, but if you can do it, then I will believe it.[16]

With such faulty reasoning and shoddy argumentation it's a wonder that anyone takes his views seriously. I have lost nearly all interest in Matt Dillahunty as a serious thinker after watching this debate. He is no more profound than the people I debate on Facebook, although he uses bigger words. Ten Bruggencate said earlier on in the debate he wanted to argue that unbelief in God leads to absurdity. While Dillahunty's performance doesn't prove that conclusion, it did prove that Dillahunty's epistemology, at least, leads to absurdity.


[1] "The Refining Reason Debate: Matt Dillahunty VS Sye Ten Bruggencate," YouTube, June 3, 2014, accessed February 21, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL8LREmbDi0. All time indexes given in this article are taken from this video.

[2] The Atheist Experience, accessed February 21, 2015, http://www.atheist-experience.com.

[3] Dillahunty vs. Ten Bruggencate, 27:33.

[4] Dillahunty equates "logical absolutes" with the "Laws of Logic."

[5] Dillahunty vs. Ten Bruggencate, 30:42.

[6] Ibid., 31:50.

[7] Ibid., 27:06.

[8] This is the idea that our situation is such as it is. If our subjective level epistemology is based on this situational arbitrariness, then it follows that Dillahunty promotes an arbitrary epistemology.

[9] Defined as justified true belief.

[10] Dillahunty vs. Ten Bruggencate, 32:54.

[11] Ibid., 1:57.

[12] Ibid., 13:30.

[13] Ibid., 14:11.

[14] Ibid., 12:00. This is Dillahunty's definition of a reasonable belief, which makes his two-tier epistemology unreasonable by his own standards.

[15] Ibid., 33:15.

[16] Ibid., 30:14.