Monday, April 8, 2019

Yet another theory of ineffability

There is a long-standing tradition of trying to explain (!) the attribute of divine ineffability. Theories that are metaphysical in flavor rule the roost:

  1. The only true assertions we can make about God are negative. (Eastern tradition)

  2. The only true assertions we can make about God are analogical. (Aquinas)

  3. The only true assertions we can make about God are non-fundamental. (Jacobs)

I want to add one more theory to the mix, one that can either be stand-alone or a complement to (1)–(3). This one is more epistemological:

  1. The only assertions we can make about God are misleading.

One can illustrate the misleadingness of true, and even literally true, statements by examples.

  • “Alice did not treat minorities as badly as Hitler” (when Alice was in fact an exemplary promoter of social justice).

  • “Bob is somewhere in this building” (when he is standing right behind you).

  • “I saw Carl in a car on I-35 this morning” (but the car was being towed by a truck).

  • “Davita passed some of her exams” (when she passed all of them).

  • “On a good day, Roger Bannister could run an 8 minute mile.”

Note that while (1)–(3) are limited to true statements, (4) does not have this restriction. After all, all false statements are misleading.

For concrete theological examples, think of how the doctrine of the Trinity shows that the doctrine of the unity of God is misleading, or the doctrine of the Incarnation shows that the doctrine of the transcendence of God is misleading. In a similar same way, when the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are taught apart from the doctrines of unity and transcendence, they are misleading. But by (4) something more pessimistic is true: even when we teach Trinity and unity (or Incarnation and transcendence) together, we still mislead. I suspect that in heaven we will learn something that changes our understanding of unity and Trinity at least as much as the doctrine of the Trinity changed our understanding of unity.

Alvin Plantinga gives this counterexample to the thesis that we cannot say anything literally true of God: “God is not a bicycle.” If (4) is true, even this statement is misleading. In what way? Well, maybe it leads us to forget the intimate link between all reality and God: that all the reality in a bicycle is a participation in God.

Note that if (4) is true, then it is misleading. But that’s not a refutation.

One could also restrict (4) if one wanted to. For instance, one could restrict (4) to non-negative statements, or to non-analogical ones, or to non-fundamental ones.

I don’t know if (4) is true.

1 comment:

Alexander R Pruss said...

A paper based on this theory has just been accepted by Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion.