Dale Tuggy

Dale Tuggy is Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.


  1. trinities - The Evolution of my Views on the Trinity – Part 4 (Dale)
    March 23, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    […] the Universe turned out to by greater that we can comprehend, or to have many persons in him? As I related once before, I tried some of this out on my fellow grad student Ed Feser, and he was unimpressed. (He […]


  2. Brandon
    February 21, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    I think you’re right that the distinction between knowing that X is so and knowing how it is so is indeed different again from any of the distinctions so far, although in certain epistemologies (e.g., Aristotelian) it’s still closely related to the difference between knowing that something is so and knowing what it is. In the Fathers I think it’s generally a response to specific positions. The Anomoeans seem to me to be an instance of a group attacking the Orthodox on the basis of the latter’s inability to say how the Trinity could be true; the Eunomians in particular were highly rationalistic and held that we can know anything about the divine nature that God can.

    I don’t think it’s very clear that knowing that a fact is so involves knowing its components and how they are put together except in the very superficial sense of knowing what the words mean and being able to make some sense of the sentence structurally, and this is a very minor and easily obtained sort of knowledge. This is especially true with regard to claims transmitted through testimony; I know that string theorists typically hold that the description of a volume of space can be encoded on the boundary of the volume, and can even give crude examples and analogies of how this sort of thing works. But good luck asking me to prove its consistency, or the specific version of the claim actually held by string theorists, because I have only a hazy and selective notion of the facts involved and no notion of the mathematics they actually use. I know the claim by testimony, and since understanding admits of degrees, I understand it somewhat (although not as well as a string theorist would) because I know the words and how they logically compose with each other to make a claim. I have no difficulty picking out which fact I am thinking about; it’s the one string theorists are picking out, which I can only vaguely describe. Knowing that a claim is so is a very low standard to meet; and the sense in which it requires knowing what the claim is is also a very low standard to meet. Whatever is the case about the Trinity, I very much doubt any mysterian is saying that we can know that a claim is true but can’t know which claim it is; the claim is that we can, in fact, understand how the words are put together to make the claim, and have reason for thinking it true, but (so to speak) understanding how the real things are put together so as to make the claim true is an entirely different order of understanding. And this is entirely plausible thing to say of any difficult subject known chiefly by testimony; as Putnam says, such knowledge by its nature involves cognitive division of labor on this very point. In the Trinitarian case the mysterian is saying that ultimately the substantive understanding in this division of labor is God’s, and could only be His; any understanding we have is derivative on the basis of testimony. And it does, in fact, make plenty of sense that under such a circumstances we could know that a claim is true but not know clearly how reality makes it a true claim.

    The point here is that it’s difficult to see how the distinction between knowing that a proposition is so and knowing which proposition it is could possibly be relevant to what mysterians are saying; mysterians aren’t making claims about the difficulty of knowing propositions, but about the difficulty of knowing reality.


  3. Dale
    February 21, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    Hi Brandon,

    Thanks for expanding on your point. I don’t think I confused knowing the meaning of a term with knowing a meaning of a claim. But I was assuming that if you barely understand a claim, then this is at least partly because you don’t understand one or more terms in it. I’m not clear quite what I’m assuming about meaning in all of this; I need to think more about it. However I argue, I want to commit as little as possible to any controversial claims about meaning.

    I don’t see any problem whatever knowing that something exists, without knowing its essence. Although I believe in (something like) essences, or essential features of things, I’m actually quite skeptical about our ability to know them. So, I’ve never thought this was a problem re: the Trinity.

    The problem here concerns knowing that a fact is so or that a proposition is true. Here, it is plausible that you can’t know that it is (so, true) unless you know what it is (i.e. which fact or proposition it is) – and this is a matter of knowing its components & how they are put together.

    In the fathers, and later, we find the insistence that they know that this (traditional Trinity claim) is so, without knowing *how* it is so. This has always struck me as a red herring – who was demanding an explanation of the (alleged) fact or truth? I’m not sure where they get this move from… it’s not the same as the Aristotelian point you mention.


  4. Brandon
    February 19, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    Hi, Dale,

    Saying that a claim is barely understandable is not the same as claiming that terms in the claim are barely understandable; thus you are making the conflation in your comment again. In the post you talk about terms in a claim that are barely understandable; but the only evidence you appeal to that this is even plausible is assertions that claims are barely understandable.

    Think of it this way: you are talking with a physicist about black holes, and the physicist says, “Black holes are objects without gravity from which even light, if it gets close enough, cannnot escape. But without the mathematics we can barely understand what this means, because we tend to make assumptions about gravity that do not obtain in the case of black holes.” It would not be a correct gloss on this to say that the physicist is saying that without the mathematics we can barely know what the ‘term’ gravity means; his very statement presupposes that we can, in fact, know what it means; concluding that the problem is the difficultying of understanding the term ‘gravity’ would be a straightforward category mistake. What he says we can barely know is not the term ‘gravity’ but the claim about the gravity of black holes; the fact that it’s our assumptions about gravity in particular, the baggage carried by the term from its association with ordinary life, that tend to trip us up is simply not a good argument for the claim that the problem is that we don’t understand the term ‘gravity’. But the difference between this case and the Trinitarian case is simply the difference between the not-currently-possible-in-fact and the not-at-all-possible-in-principle.

    Moreover, both of these are radically different from saying that the nature of black holes is barely graspable. A physicist is not contradicting himself if he says, “I understand this and that claim about black holes fairly well, and know them for a number of reasons to be true, but I simply don’t understand what black holes themselves are, and don’t think anyone can. They’re just too different from our normal experience.” Knowing a claim is not the same as a knowing a thing; understanding a claim about a thing is different from understanding the thing about which the claim is made. This is particularly relevant to the discussion here because Catholic mysterianism in particular tends to be influenced by Aristotelian epistemology, and the distinction between knowing what a thing is and knowing that it is such or so is absolutely essential to Aristotelian epistemology (and more than a few forms of Neoplatonist philosophy, as well): the two are just different things for Aristotle, and require that different conditions be met, and this is true for everything. Thus it is entirely possible for us to understand a claim about a thing, and to know that the claim is true, without knowing what the thing is, because that requires a different process. This is perhaps a more controversial distinction than the other; but any argument against most forms of Catholic mysterianism that does not recognize it as a distinction someone could be making will be question-begging.


  5. Dale
    February 19, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    Hi Brandon,

    I’m not sure what you think I’m confused about. Many theologians do hold that (some?) trinitarian claims are barely understandable. They themselves often suggest that the culprit is the term (word) “person”, and also our concept of a person, which they sometimes hold is derived from an only or best applicable to the created realm. Both our language and our minds, they hold, are inadequate to fully or clearly express the truth about God.

    I don’t see that I’ve made any category mistake here… but set me straight if you’re convinced I’m confused…


  6. Edward Feser
    February 19, 2010 @ 3:09 am


  7. Brandon
    February 19, 2010 @ 1:15 am

    I’m a bit puzzled with how you end the post. I think you are confusing the question of knowing the meaning of the terms and knowing how they function in a claim (on the one hand) and knowing the meaning of a claim and knowing the thing described by the claim. None of these are the same thing. To take a trivial example, if I say, “Well, philosophy both is and is not hard,” there is no problem with anyone understanding the words; they may not understand how they are functioning in the claim, and misinterpret it as a straightforward contradiction when it isn’t. So there needs to be a distinction there. There also needs to be a distinction between knowing claims and knowing that which claims describe; someone can know what claims physicists make about black holes, but that doesn’t mean that they know black holes, i.e., have any sort of rigorous understanding or certain knowledge based on adequate acquaintance. Problems raised about the Trinity are not (if they are serious) about the meaning of the words; they are about how the words are composed into a claim. A critic who had difficulty understanding what ‘Three’ or ‘One’ or ‘person’ meant is someone who has difficulties not confined to the Trinity and thus not really about the doctrine of the Trinity at all. At the very least he is going to have difficulty saying anything relevant to the subject at all; he’s just not even on the same page to begin with. Likewise, the typical mysterian claim is not that there are particular words in the creed that are hard to understand; so asking which terms in the claim “God is three persons in one being” are the terms we can barely grasp the meaning of is something of a category mistake; as if, in response to someone saying that something was liable to be confusing, you asked which, precisely was liable to being confusing: the nouns or the adjectives? Or as if we asked which term in the claim, “Other minds exists” is the hardest part of the philosophical problem of other minds. There’s no way to make sense of such a question.


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