Thursday, January 9, 2014

Some valid arguments from absurdity

Here are some curious forms of argument that I want to play with. First:

  1. Doctrine D is so absurd that no one could believe D while fully realizing its absurdity, except by a miracle.
  2. Someone believes D while fully realizing its absurdity.
  3. So, a miracle has occurred.
Given the human capacity for believing the unbelievable, it is going to be hard to support (1) for any interesting D (except maybe: p and not p).

Let's try this:

  1. Doctrine D is so absurd that no one could reasonably believe D while fully realizing its absurdity, except by a miracle.
  2. Someone reasonably believes D while fully realizing its absurdity.
  3. So, a miracle has occurred.
In arguments of this sort, the difficulty has shifted to (5). But we might try the following. Start by observing that a person doesn't become unreasonable simply by having a trivial belief that isn't reasonable. But to center one's life one a belief that isn't reasonable might be enough to render one unreasonable:
  1. If at least one of the beliefs central to x's life is not reasonable, then x is an unreasonable person.
  2. x is not unreasonable.
  3. One of the beliefs central to x's life is D.
  4. x fully realizes the absurdity of D while believing D.
  5. So someone reaosnably believes D while fully realizing its absurdity.

The conclusions of the above arguments were that a miracle has occurred. Can we conclude that D is true? Well, we would have to look at our best explanation of the miracle. If it involves God, then we have reason to think D is true. Here's an argument that avoids the detour through miracles.

  1. Doctrine D is so absurd that no reasonable person would hold D as a belief central to her life while fully realizing D's absurdity unless she knew D to be true.
  2. Some reasonable person held D as a belief central to her life while fully realizing D's absurdity.
  3. So, somebody knew D to be true.
  4. So, D is true.

I think the big difficulty with arguments of this form in the cases most familiar to me, namely with D a doctrine from the Christian tradition, is that people who are paradigm examples of rationality, like Thomas Aquinas, do not take the doctrine to be really absurd.


Kenny Pearce said...

To believe D while being a generally reasonable person is not the same thing as to believe D reasonably. Accordingly, I think (5) is incoherent as stated. From the rest of your post, though, it sounds like the premise you wanted was something like:

(5') Some generally reasonable person believes D while fully recognizing its absurdity.

Now this is a claim along the same lines as:

(5'') Some irascible person calmly accepts mistreatment at the hands of S.

Obviously both of these claims are coherent. I suppose one could imagine a case where, given what we know of human psychology, occurrences like (5') and (5'') might be thought to require miracles.

Larry said...

Would Kierkegaard be an example of someone who believed a doctrine to be absurd but believed it anyway?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe. But how rational was he? He is a great and insightful philosopher, but he is sufficiently strange in his approach that I am not confident in saying he's rational.


I meant (5) to be what I said. Whether it's incoherent depends on how we read "absurd". I read it as indicating a kind of strong paradoxicality.

Larry said...

I've been thinking about this over the weekend - it reminds me of the term "doublethink" from Orwell's 1984. When I read that book i found it terrifying because I knew that I could never believe two mutually contradictory statements (and would be subject to all those tortures for "thoughtcrime"). Most believe that even God cannot make contradictions like square circles to be true, therefore I would say that a miracle of that sort isn't possible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But an absurdity need not be a contradiction. At least, I don't think Kierkegaard uses the word to mean a contradiction.

Larry said...

Would you have a specific Christian doctrine that would be a good example?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Three things that Kierkegaard will probably say are examples are:
1. Forgiveness of sins. (A being that has perfect memory forgives our sins.)
2. The Incarnation. (An eternal being is human.)
3. The existence of sophisticated faith. (Someone believes an absurdity while fully realizing that its absurd.)

I bet he'd also include the Trinity, but the above are ones I actually remember from my reading of him.

Larry said...

Thanks that helps - I see what you are saying....I believe the Incarnation / Hypostatic Union even though the concept is difficult, but I wouldn't believe it if it were a contradiction. However, I also find quantum entanglement difficult but I doubt anyone would think me unreasonable for believing in it even if I don't fully understand how it works. In both above cases, I have other reasons to believe them to be true. So if someone truly believes it to be absurd (rather than just difficult or beyond their personal understanding) then I would think them not rational.

Aaron Nash said...

Kierkegaard: "The believing Christian both has and uses his understanding ... He cannot believe nonsense against the understanding" (Postscript).

Alexander R Pruss said...

The absurd is a different category from nonsense for Kierkegaard.

Aaron Nash said...

Right. :)

For Kierkegaard, the absurd is not so much the logically contradictory as the imaginatively incomprehensible. ("The absurd is that the eternal has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up ...") In this way he writes of the incomprehensibility of the paradox — "the passion of thought." And in the passage from which I quoted, he contrasts the nonsensical and the absurd. "[The Christian] cannot believe nonsense against the understanding, which one might fear, because the understanding will penetratively perceive that it is nonsense and will hinder him from believing it, but he uses the understanding so much that through it he becomes aware of the incomprehensible, and now, believing, he relates himself to it against the understanding." (Postscript, p. 568).

So far I've read twenty-two of the twenty-four volumes of K's published writings (from Princeton), plus some of the journals, etc. And I know that Prof. Pruss has read a lot of him too, and that Pruss is a real-live philosopher, whereas I'm a layman. But I would still argue crosswise of the Professor: that K was rational (although not always easy to understand, given the authorship, the indirection) ... Not to say that anybody cares what I would argue.