Hays on attempts to argue from theism to Trinity
Steve Hays has posted on my critiques of purely philosophical arguments from theism to the Trinity.
Steve Hays has posted on my critiques of purely philosophical arguments from theism to the Trinity.
At Triablogue apologist Steve Hays has posted on my critiques of purely philosophical arguments from theism to the Trinity. It is worth saying at the outset that most trinitarians don’t put any stock in such arguments. By far most have never so much as heard of them. And among trinitarians with some philosophical education, enough to understand how such arguments are supposed to work, the wiser among them see how tenuous they are. A very proper and reasonable skepticsm kicks in. In my view, which is also the view of many trinitarian philosophers and theologians, we should think that whether any Trinity theory is viable should depend on whether or not it best explains scripture, and not on any argument like this.
But, these arguments are enormously tempting for trinitarian apologists. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a philosophical club to wield against any and all non-trinitarian monotheists? In other words, wouldn’t it be awesome to show that their god is impossible, something that couldn’t be real, like a square circle? You just want to pick that low-hanging fruit, don’t you?
Hays feels that temptation. He writes,
A. Some Christian philosophers and theologians have proposed a priori arguments (i.e. arguments from reason) for the Trinity. … Tuggy has attempted to debunk these arguments on more than one occasion:
B. Let’s reframe the issue. Instead of considering a priori arguments for Trinitarianism, suppose we consider a priori undercutters for unitarianism. These don’t propose to directly prove the Trinity. Rather, if successful, they provide indirect support for the Trinity by undermining unitarianism.
A sensible move, given the failure of philosophical Trinity arguments. We failed to get a touchtown. So, let’s re-describe the situation; actually, we were trying to merely gain five yards. But wait… did we even do that?
Hays does nothing new here; philosophers like Davis realize that there are two stages to this argument strategy:
Stage 1: Show how it is impossible for there to be a unipersonal god. In other words, any god must be multi-personal. (Sometimes this is expressed clumsily, that there can’t be “a unitarian god.”)
Stage 2: Show how it is impossible for there to more or less than three divine persons. In other words, any god must not only be multi-personal, but must also be exactly tripersonal. Can’t be only two, or more than three.
Hays wishes to focus on Stage 1. This is sensible, as Stage 2 is evidently harder to argue, and is pointless unless Stage 1 works. What Steve is less clear about, though, is what must be done. The way you show the (metaphysical, absolute) impossibility of a situation is to show how it implies a contradiction, or at least how it implies something else which clearly seems impossible. Or short of this, you show how the opposite of that situation seems necessary (i.e. impossible that it not be).
Thus, for Stage 1, you must derive a contradiction (or some evident impossibility) from the concept of unipersonal god, a god who is a single, great self.
Suppose these arguments fall short of proving that God must be no less than three persons and no more than three persons. Although they fail to prove that God is tripersonal, if they undermine the grounds for believing that God might be unipersonal, then they are successful undercutters for unitarianism. That’s analogous to a Christian apologist who proposes an undercutter for atheism. If successful, the logical alternative isn’t necessarily Christianity. So additional arguments would be required to narrow the field down to Christianity. However, to eliminate atheism from rational consideration is a significant first step.
I think by “undercutter” he means what some epistemologists would call a “rebutting defeater.” But the point is clear enough: it’d sure be neat if it could be shown that a unipersonal god is impossible. Then if Stage 2 fails, who cares. We just fall back on our brilliant, overwhelming arguments from the Bible to the Trinity. (What could go wrong… right?)
But it’s all for nothing unless some impossibility can be shown. Hays takes a few stabs at it, but his efforts are wholly unconvincing.
I skip Hays’s musings about “proof.” Finally getting to the point, he reaches for the idea that somehow “God is love” requires the falsity of any uni-personal theology.
D. The nature of love
1. How can God be love if he has no one to love? In the nature of the case, love is a relation.
Notice what this argument doesn’t claim. It doesn’t claim that love must be generous. It doesn’t claim that love is diffusive.
It doesn’t claim that God would be imperfect if he had no one to love. It doesn’t even claim that God would be imperfect unless he was loving by nature.
Rather, it’s a conditional claim: If God is love, then given that postulate, divine love must have an object–because love is a relation.
He gestures at a couple of different types of arguments here. But he seems to settle on a rather obvious category error. He puts “love” in the category of relation, like bigger-than or same-size as, and then says that since “God is love,” then God must be a relation, and so have objects “between” which God exists.
It’s obviously impossible, though, for God to be a relation or a property or an event, etc. A god is by definition a being, an entity that can stand in relations, have properties, undergo events. Relations, if there are such things, don’t love, create, know, or respond – but God does. On the face of it, it is wildly unlikely that John means to make such an assertion anyway, but Hays just wants to run with this out of context, weirdly interpreted sentence. Got to get that prize!
I think his point would be better put like this. Love is an action or attitude of a self. And it is one which takes an object, real or imaginary. Love is always directed at something. But of course, that something can be the lover himself! If we want to represent love as a relation, it can be a reflexive relation. These are all clear conceptual truths.
So then, I agree that “God is love.” At most, this means that God is essentially, paradigmatically, and maximally loving. Let’s grant all that, leaving aside sober exegesis for the sake of argument. But this doesn’t imply that he must always actually love another, any more than his being merciful entails that he’s having mercy on another.
2. Dale might respond that God does have something to love. God loves his creatures.
No, Dale wouldn’t do that, as that’d be missing the point. Most of us want to deny that God has to create anything at all. So a trinitarian should not want to say that God is always and necessarily loving because he always and necessarily has a cosmos featuring suitable objects of love. In fact, good philosophers like Davis build this into a premise of their argument – see the paper of mine linked above, and the references there.
That, however, raises another issue. If creatures are all God has to love, then there’s a lack of parity between the lover and the beloved. A unitarian god relates to humans the way a boy related to his pet lizard.
Well, that’s a wild non sequitur! For the Jew or Christian, a “unitarian god” relates to humans like Yahweh in the OT relates to Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Isaiah, and how the Father of the NT relates to Jesus, Paul, and John. Hard to see how Hays thinks it follows that the heavenly Father of Jesus’s teaching must instead be like a third grader with a gecko!
Christians are rightly critical of couples who choose to have pets as an alternative to kids. If love is an essential divine attribute, can that be satisfied by a contingent and inferior corollary?
Here, Hays gestures at the idea that the best kind of love is love of another which is at least roughly an equal, so that the friendship is more like that between lovers than that between Mom and kid, or kid and dog. That’s plausible… but, so what?
What he’s not grasping is that “love” as a divine attribute need not be an action; it is plausibly a character trait, just as with God’s being merciful, or his being forgiving, kind, or generous.
3. Dale might respond that self-love is adequate.
If so, one problem with that response is that it’s equivocal. To be loving in the sense of self-love isn’t the same kind of love as loving another.
I do think that of necessity God exists and loves himself, yes. How could he not? That he loves himself seems to be entailed by his own value and his own perfect rationality and knowledge. But Hays, again, realizes that any sort of trinitarian argument will require that any divine person must, by his essence, be actually loving a peer. That, though, has not been shown. It’s merely on the would-be Trinity prover’s wish-list.
We could pursue this general line of argument in additional directions, but let’s save that for a related argument:
When all else fails, change the subject!
E. The nature of personhood
1. Does the very idea of a person necessitate interpersonal relationships? Is personhood intrinsically relational?
Obviously not. See the post with the Robinson Crusoe image above. This is recent, groundless and wildly implausible speculation.
2. One of Dale’s counterarguments is that love is a character trait, not an action. An agent can possess that disposition or virtue even if he never has a chance to actually manifest that virtue.
Let’s put this more carefully. “Love” can mean either of those two things. But what seems required by perfect being theology, because it says that God is morally perfect, is the character trait. There is no hold, seemingly, that the action of loving can get on perfect being reasoning. At least, this has only ever been asserted; it has never been shown that an absolutely perfect being must be loving another.
But there are problems with that counterargument:
i) Although love is a disposition or character trait, personhood is not. Rather, personhood is the basis for dispositions or character traits, which inhere in personhood. So that’s more fundamental.
In the context of the point about love, this is just retreating to an even less plausible argument – arguing that mere divine personhood necessitates interpersonal relationship/friendship with another.
ii) Perhaps even more to the point, why would God have an intrinsic capacity for something merely contingent? For something that God can do without?
Because God is essentially absolutely perfect, and this entails the ability to enter into I-Thou relationships. That seems like a pretty good answer, right?
Humans can have an unrealized potential for interpersonal relationships, but that’s because humans are essentially social beings. Why would a unipersonal God have that innate capacity in the first place, if his ability to socialize is inessential to who or what he is? In unitarianism, the existence of other persons is a contingent fact.
See previous answer. The god, so to speak, of perfect being theology is a self, a being with the greatest sorts of knowledge, power to intentionally act, and to choose. That is why a “unipersonal God” (in other words, a god) have the innate capacity for interpersonal relationships.
3. Dale has leveled another counterargument:
The same point can be made with a simpler, more chilling story. Some have speculated that those who are sent to Hell are neither literally burned nor actively tormented, but are simply cast into permanent, utter isolation. Imagine this happening to you; you are judged for your deeds, and then find your self in an empty, dark place. You call out, “Hello? Is anyone there?” Days, weeks, months pass, and your sanity hangs by a thread, for you are deprived of any degree of attention, as far as you can tell, from anyone. (If God is aware of you, you have no hint of this – he has seemingly abandoned you.) You are devoid of any sort of friendship or communion. But, you are as much a self as you ever were – not a thriving one, to be sure, but a self nonetheless.
Nice point, me! Yes, this seems possible. And so, it seems false that any self is essentially relational, in interpersonal relationship to other selves. But Hays thinks he’s got me here:
But ironically, his counterargument is self-defeating:
i) Let’s play along with the notion of solitary confinement. In this case, unitarian solipsism.
Suppose you put a person in a windowless cell. No companions. No movies. All he had was his own mind to entertain him.
And suppose this person was immortal. Remember that Dale regards God as everlasting rather than timeless. For him, God has no beginning or ending. So God experiences the (psychological) passage of time.
Suppose, after a century, or millennium, or million years, or billion years, or trillion years, you open the door and let the inmate leave solitary confinement. What will his mental condition be like? To judge by a human standard of comparison, he’d be catatonic or stark raving mad.
So it’s not just a question of whether a unitarian deity can initially be a person, but whether the psychological integrity of personhood requires companionship, in whose absence it will deteriorate.
This point is irrelevant; a red herring. Of course, a human person would fail to flourish in long solitary confinement, in total social isolation. But, so what? It is coherent to suppose that there should be a person/self not subject to that limitation, without that absolute need. And indeed, this is what we should think about God, that he’s self-sufficient, and not at all in need of company – neither for his sanity nor for his existence.
4. Perhaps Dale would say that’s too anthropomorphic. That illicitly extrapolates from human nature to the divine nature.
What is he doing here? Is he arguing that divine sanity requires divine company? If so, that’s a stretch! Why, Steve, should we think that a divine person must be a social animal, a type of being which requires the company of its own kind in order to thrive?
If so, there are problems with that rejoinder:
i) Dale is an open theist, so he already has a far more anthropomorphic view of the deity than classical theism.
ii) What are the limitations of an argument by analogy from man to God? God and man are different in two ways: some things are true of God that can’t be true of man while some things are true of man that can’t be true of God. For the extrapolation to be vitiated by disanalogy, Dale needs to show that one of those two things limitations applies in reference to the argument at hand.
Now we’re just getting off track. He’s trying to go on the attack here, but what does this have to do with showing that there can’t be a single divine person?
ii) Dale constantly impugns Incarnational, Trinitarian theism for taking refuge in mystery or paradox, but if unitarianism posits a God for which there’s no analogy in human experience, then unitarianism is apophatic, which is an appeal to mystery. An ineffable, inscrutable God.
This is so upside down that it’s mind-boggling. We all experience ourselves, and other selves, and unitarian theology says that God too is a self, though a much greater one. So, God is somewhat like things with which even all atheists are familiar. Beings with two natures? Zilcho in ordinary experience – nothing like that. Beings which are multipersonal? Ditto. Both ideas notoriously obscure, unfortunately. And, fortunately, both are unneeded for understanding the Bible, which was entirely written before such theories saw the light of day.
Is the “God for which there’s no analogy in human experience” one which doesn’t get lonely, which is not a social animal? If that’s what he means, we do have relevant experience for a being like that: non-social animals! These would be any kind of animal, real or imagined, which is able to flourish without interaction with any other members of its own kind, or even with any other conscious being. Perhaps some biology major out there can suggest an actual, uncontroversial example of such an animal.
A being that’s said to be essentially personal or unipersonal without being essentially interpersonal is opaque to human understanding. That doesn’t correspond to our grasp of what it means to be a person.
Nonsense. Hays has given us no reason to think that being in relationship with another is part of “what it means to be a person.” He seems to be merely asserting this, or to be making a wholly unconvincing argument from analogy: God is like humans, humans need others to thrive, therefore God needs others to thrive.
When the unitarian makes God that remote to human understanding, that inapprehensible, then what does his concept of God amount to? What’s the difference between God and no God?
God, according to unitarian Christian theology, is… well, all that the Bible explicitly or clearly implicitly says! Nothing in there about essential interpersonal relationships. It’s hilarious to suggest that somehow the unitarian must lose all grip on the concept of God. Ever read the Bible? Each and every “god” mentioned therein is assumed to be “unipersonal,” as seen in the incessant use of singular verbs (etc.) and singular personal pronouns – including the one true God himself, aka the Father. (John 17:3)
This multipersonal god concept is alleged to be implied there, I know, but frankly, the arguments are all dodgy – as are the arguments of this post. I suggest Steve would do better to start with one of Davis’s arguments, or one from my paper above, and then try to defend it.