Is Individual Fallibility the Great Leveler?

leveIn my debate with Nathanael Taylor, his argument claimed that individual fallibility  renders us all equally uncertain about matters of faith. In other words, due to the fact that we are fallible human actors, no one person can have any greater epistemic certainty than another.

Nate argued that, because a Catholic (fallibly) uses his intellect and will to make a choice that the Catholic Church is true, he is in no better epistemic position than the Protestant who fallibly chooses that the inerrant Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith.

This is the argument Tim Troutman rebuts in his post “Infallibility and Epistemology.” (And a similar one to the tu quoque argument that Called to Communion also rebutted.)

I summarized these rebuttals during the debate. I borrowed Tim’s example about Nathanael and I trying to help our friend Joe find the pizza parlor. Nathanael gives him a map (analogous to the Bible) while in addition to the map I give Nathanael a reliable guide that can read directions well. (Nathanael and I both know Joe cannot read directions that well.) Joe is obviously in a better position having the map and a reliable guide to the map (even though the map itself is accurate).

Nathanael’s attempted rebuttal was: “ah, but there are seven different maps” (one for each religion), but that is nonsensical, as the map is the Bible which we agree on. To bring up different religions here is to talk about something unrelated to the point in question.

Tim also gives the more rigorous philosophical reason why Nathanael’s argument is in error:

Here’s the argument. Scripture + Church is not better than Scripture alone because of man’s fallibility. So man’s fallibility is said to be the cause of Scripture + Church not being better than Scripture as regards certainty. Now God could have placed us in various states of infallible authority. Consider the basic three as follows. 1. No infallible authority. 2. Scripture only. 3. Scripture + Church. Now Protestants agree that 2 is an improvement on 1, but 3 is not an improvement on 2.1 But if man’s fallibility caused 3 not to improve on 2, then it would also cause 2 not to improve on 1. This is because, objectively speaking, 3 is better than 2 just as (and in the same way that) 2 is better than 1. A living authority that lacks the possibility of error and is capable of addressing any new question (along with the inerrant document) is better than only an inerrant document addressing a limited number of questions and unable to clarify itself.

But if this fact is nullified by man’s failure to receive it infallibly because of something inherent in man himself (fallibility), then it can only be because the infallibility of any source is necessarily reduced to fallible interpretation by man. So objectively speaking, the Scripture alone (2) is better than no infallible authority (1), but in regard to man, 2 is not better than 1 because such infallibility (or inerrancy) is reduced to fallible interpretation in man.

Sure, 2 might be better than 1 practically; Scripture is true and therefore sets us on the right path. But according to this argument it is not better than 1 in regard to certainty because man is a fallible interpreter. And yes, 3 might be better than 2 on some practical level, but not in regard to certainty.  All infallible sources are reduced to fallible interpretations by man so nothing is really better than anything else as far as certainty goes. The moment we say that 3 is not better than 2, we simultaneously say 2 is not better than 1.  And the moment we say that 2 is better than 1, we say that 3 is better than 2 (or would be if it was true).

The Protestant argument fails because we all know and agree that 2 is better than 1. Therefore 3 is also better than 2.

And that, quite simply, is that. Nathanael either did not understand his error, or he is an adherent to philosophical skepticism. (I’m not sure which, perhaps he will respond here and tell us.)

There’s something more though. In one place (around the 1:02:45 mark), Nathanael conceded that the Catholic is in a better epistemic position. Yet, he spent most of the debate, both before and after this point, denying that this was so. Hence, he contradicted himself and his concession undermines his central argument (that fallibility levels the playing field no matter what).

After this concession, he tried to claim epistemic certainty didn’t matter though because I had to choose between other self-proclaimed “infallible” Churches: Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism and the Sedevacantists.

While I certainly agree that the mere claim of infallibility is not enough to decide which Church is the one founded by Christ, I had already laid out the other reasons for choosing the Catholic Church, in answer to his first question (“how do you know which infallible Church is the correct one?”). You start in the first century and trace the Church Christ founded forward. There are motives of credibility for the Catholic Church. So this claim of Nate’s also fails.

Nathanael put himself in an untenable philosophical position when he implied that individuality fallibility entails fallibilism (that certainty of knowledge is impossible). Dr. Bryan Cross demonstrates why this claim is in error:

It is important to distinguish between the susceptibility of an agent to err, and the possible falsehood of any proposition held or stated by that agent. The fact that we are susceptible to err does not entail that we cannot know with certainty that any of our beliefs are true. Nor does it entail that every proposition believed or stated might be false. When we state a true proposition, the fact that we could instead have stated a different, and false, proposition, does not mean that we cannot be certain that the proposition is true. The fallibility of the agent should not be confused with the fallibility of the proposition stated or believed by the agent. The fallibility of the agent does not entail skepticism about knowledge or about truth. It does not prevent us from knowing the truth, and knowing it with certainty; fallibility does not entail fallibilism.

In fact, based on Nathanael’s repeated statements during our debate, he does not think we can know anything with certainty. Hence, as he said, we must rely on our individual interpretation of the books that we think are Scripture (which may include some non-inspired ones) that the “generally reliable” Church chose, and the basis for our faith is no more sturdy than this cascade of fallible choices.

Dr. Cross explains that this is incorrect, and that we can indeed have more certainty about one proposition versus another:

Not only that, but our fallibility does not prevent us from having more certainty about x than y. And that is because we can perceive the truth of some things to a greater degree than we do other things.

When we are epistemically limited to testimony, the more credible the witness the greater reason we have for believing the testimony to be true. And when the witness is God, we can be absolutely certain that His testimony to be true and without error, because God cannot lie or err. So in what cases is God testifying? Jesus authorized His Apostles to speak for Him, saying, “He who listens to you, listens to Me, and he who rejects you, rejects Me.” We know, with certainty, by the testimony of the Church (those whom Christ authorized to speak for Him), that God spoke in the writing of Scripture. These words are God-breathed, and so we know with absolute certainty that they are protected from error. Likewise, from the very same Church that is authorized to speak for Christ, we know that the Church is protected from error by the Holy Spirit under certain conditions, such as when she defines dogmas.

Just as we gain epistemic certainty about the truth of the content of Scripture from knowing that Scripture is protected from error, so likewise we gain epistemic certainty about the truth of the dogmas of the Church from knowing that the Church is protected from error when she defines dogmas. All of that is fully compatible with our being fallible agents.

Interestingly, Nathanael’s goal during the debate seems to have been to play for a mere draw, or stalemate,  based on (the erroneous claim of) fallibilism. Or, perhaps, to first get the stalemate and then use “Occam’s Razor” to say Protestantism is better because it has less books in its Bible and does not have the Magisterium. I’ll take up his usage of Occam’s Razor (and how he applies it to transubstantiation) in a post later this week.

Here is the debate again:

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21 thoughts on “Is Individual Fallibility the Great Leveler?”

  1. Excellent post (and great excerpt from Tim’s post). My fundamental problem with Nate’s infallibility agument is that accepting it requires one to believe that human’s can never posess objective knowledge.

    Placed in a different context, this argument would require me to place equal credence on the principles of alchemy as I do those of chemistry. If I cannot escape my fallibility, how can I possibly claim one set of principles to be more right than the other?

    1. Steve, that is exactly the problem with his position. It would be like saying: “Fallibility levels the playing field such that we cannot know anything with certainty, or be more certain or X vs. Y. Might as well be a Buddhist or a Hindu, since it all reduces to one fallible choice.”

  2. We humans are fallible.

    The only thing that is infallible is God. His Word is infallible.

    So, if we are to trust in anything, it ought be in His Word. That being Jesus Christ Himself. And Christ in preaching and teaching about Himself. In the Bible, about Himself.

    When the subject gets back to ‘us’…then we are headed down the wrong road.

    1. Steve,

      How do you know the bible is trustworthy and that it is the Word of God? Why do you trust the fallible humans who wrote it? Why do you trust the fallible humans that composed the canon?

      My guess it is because you have very little knowledge of where the bible came from?

    2. The Bible is an aspect of God. It is God’s Word. But the Word of God is much more than the Bible.

      The Bible is a product of God, and of man. The fallible contains the infallible. The finite contains the infinite.

      The Word is what has authority. Inasmuch as it is the gospel Word which creates faith in people, and sustains faith in people.

      1. Steve Martin says:

        The Bible is an aspect of God.

        No. It isn’t. You have just committed what is called “bibliolatry”. The Bible is a book which contains the revelation of God’s plan of salvation. No more, no less. The Bible contains God’s word. It is not, God’s word. When we call it the word of God, it is a metaphor which signifies that it contains God’s message. But it is not Divine nor is it part of the Divine Being. It is not an aspect of God.

        It is God’s Word.

        It contains God’s message.

        But the Word of God is much more than the Bible.

        The Bible is not Divine. The Bible is not part of the Holy Trinity. The Bible is simply a book which contains the revelation of God.

        Jesus Christ, the Word of God is truly God.

        The Bible is a product of God, and of man.

        True. God inspired men to write that which He had previously inspired them to Teach.

        The fallible contains the infallible.

        False. That doesn’t even make sense.

        Let us dispense with the inaccuracies of Protestant terminology.

        The Bible is not infallible. It is inerrant. It does not contain error.

        Infallible means that it won’t fail. The Bible can’t fail because the Bible CAN’T DO anything to risk failure. The Bible is inanimate. Therefore failure does not apply to the Bible.

        Failure, however, does apply to ongoing concerns. The Church is an ongoing concern. It is intended, by God, that the Church exist til the end of time and even in eternity (Eph 3:10).

        God gave the Church the gift of infallibility. And this gift is the reason why the New Testament is inerrant. It is the Church practicing the gift of infallibility that produced the inerrant Scripture.

        The finite contains the infinite.

        That is a contradiction which is only true in a manner of speaking. It is not literally true. The infinite can not be contained in the finite by definition.

        In that term, the infinite is a metaphor for God. God is divine. And the Divine transcends the finite. God is larger than the largest thing and smaller than the smallest thing. Time and space do not apply to God. Therefore, the finite can contain God and can not contain God, at one and the same time.

        The Word is what has authority.

        God has given His authority to the Church (Matt 16:19).

        Inasmuch as it is the gospel Word which creates faith in people, and sustains faith in people.

        The Gospel does not create faith. Faith is the first and unmerited grace which God gives all men. God bestows more faith upon those who have proven faithful (Romans 4:16; Rom 5:2).

        The Gospel does sustain faith in people who once have believed (Matthew 13:12).

    3. Steve Martin says:

      We humans are fallible.

      No argument.

      The only thing that is infallible is God. His Word is infallible.

      Scripture says that God’s Word is passed down in Tradition:
      2 Thessalonians 2:15
      King James Version (KJV)
      15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

      That verse says that the Traditions of Jesus Christ are passed down both by the oral and by the written word. Do you deny it?

      So, if we are to trust in anything, it ought be in His Word.

      Which we do, because Christ established Traditions. And He established the Church. Then He commanded the Church to Teach His Traditions (Matt 28:19-20).

      That being Jesus Christ Himself. And Christ in preaching and teaching about Himself. In the Bible, about Himself.

      But Jesus Christ did not write any of the Bible. Jesus taught and did many signs, and those who witnessed His Teaching and His deeds, wrote about them. But Jesus wrote not a word.

      The only thing which God wrote, ever, were the Ten Commandments on stone.

      Deuteronomy 4:13
      And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.

      When the subject gets back to ‘us’…then we are headed down the wrong road.

      Hm? Why? Salvation is about us. It is about how we are saved by Christ. So, what’s your point actually?

  3. Devin,

    You wrote: “In fact, based on Nathanael’s repeated statements during our debate, he does not think we can know anything with certainty.”

    I am not sure about that. At least, I can remember Nate stating the conditions (in terms of “possible worlds”) for a proposition to be necessarily true. I’d bet that he would claim to know at least a few propositions that satisfy these conditions. That would count as knowing something with certainty, granted Nate’s underlying philosophical perspective as evinced in the debate. Nate is working with a different definition of “knowledge” than an Aristotelian (/Thomist). Given Nate’s epistemology, he can count as knowledge what Aristotle or St. Thomas would have classified as opinion. Further, it seemed that he described the assent of faith (which, on the Catholic view as expressed by St. Thomas, is more certain than the other intellectual virtues) as equivalent to the assent of opinion. From a Catholic (and not only a Thomistic) point of view, that is extremely problematic. It seemed to me that you were aware of this problem (faith reduced to opinion). It seems to me that the disconnect on this point (and with regard to divine simplicity, though you wisely refused to take that bait) was at least partly due to philosophical differences that could not be explored in depth during the debate itself.

    1. Andrew,

      You’ve hit the nail on the head here and described exactly what Nathanael’s understanding was. He asked me during the debate to explain the difference between the assent of faith (belief) and opinion, and my thought was, “time to start quoting St. Thomas Aquinas.” But had I done that 1) it would have lost most listeners and 2) also I doubt he would have been swayed during the debate that there was a difference between the assent of faith and opinion.

      Finally it would likely have been beyond my philosophical mastery to try to correct such a fundamental error in any case.

      Excellent analysis!

      1. Devin,

        My Aristotelian philosophy professor had a very sharp tool to gauge any statement: apply it to itself; if it’s true, it cannot contradict itself.

        If one states that we cannot know anything with certainty, then how can he know this statement with certainty? Either he doesn’t know it, as if it’s his opinion, or he knows it and is in contradiction; it is either a sophism or a fallacy. Therefore, it’s not true.

        Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

  4. Here is another effort to express my impressions of and response to the debate [in what follows I am using “certain” to denote the objective state of the evidence for a proposition, and “certitude” to denote the subjective degree of conviction regarding the truth of a proposition]:

    It seems to me that from Nate’s point of view “knowledge” involves (1) true propositions that are certain, of which we rightly have complete certitude in assenting (e.g., the law of non-contradiction), as well as (2) true propositions that are not certain, of which we have less than complete certitude in assenting. It further seemed that he was implying that “faith” is simply “knowledge” in either of the two senses given above.

    From a Catholic point of view, every proposition that calls for the assent of faith (i.e., as having been divinely revealed) is certain (the evidence being divine authority), although the believer’s subjective certitude can waver, because many of the propositions that call for faith cannot be grasped by the power of natural reason; the mind naturally tends to entertain doubts about what it cannot fully comprehend. However, because these propositions are objectively certain, in faith we remain “infinitely open” to subjective certitude–we give ourselves over entirely to the Truth which is expressed by the proposition. Doubts come and go, but the will remains firmly oriented to the Truth which is expressed by the objectively certain proposition.

    The problem that I see for the Protestant position is that there are any number of doctrinal propositions, not expressly affirmed or denied in Sacred Scripture, and which do not follow by a simple, deductive argument from all of the relevant propositions that are explicitly contained in Sacred Scripture, which nevertheless seem to be critical to Christian identity and experience, i.e., as determining our orientation to God in faith and worship, and to one another as covenant members. The examples are well-known and often debated (among Protestants and between Protestants and Catholics).

    For the Protestant, these matters must remain perpetually matters of opinion, as not being certain in themselves. Now, one can define faith so that such opinions fall under the rubric of “faith.” And one can choose to remain firmly committed to one’s “faith” so defined. But this simply replaces divine revelation (which is certain in itself) with human opinion as the (express, propositional) object of faith. One result of this move is that the doorway to “infinite certitude” is closed, while doubt, which we all (Protestants and faithful Catholics) experience as a psychological event and spiritual conflict, becomes ensconced as part of the essence of “faith,” thus leaving the will, as a matter of principle, perpetually hinged between two sides of a contradiction. Someone in this position cannot simply and wholly give himself to the Truth. And though this problem has something to do with epistemology, it is not fundamentally an epistemological problem.

    1. Andrew,

      Brilliant analysis again. That is just the sort of precise language that explains our respective positions. I wish that I had been able to elucidate that better during our debate, and also that Nate could understand it (so that he could understand his own philosophical errors and embrace the accurate philosophical basis for reality).

      God bless,

    2. Well, no. Without responding point by point, you seem to say that Protestants can’t be absolutely certain of any theological doctrine. I get that sense from this sentence:

      For the Protestant, these matters must remain perpetually matters of opinion, as not being certain in themselves…..

      And I’ve spoken to very many Protestants and they seem just as certain of their beliefs as any Catholics. Just ask Steve Martin.

      But that seems to miss the point which Nathanael is addressing. And it is a common objection Protestants bring up. It is more an objection to the authority of the Pope and the Magisterium than to the certainty of belief.

      In my opinion, it is a logical non sequitur which they commit simply because they put the cart before the horse. Their emphasis is on certainty. Whereas, our emphasis is on trust.

      It is similar to the argument about absolute assurance of salvation. They want to know that they are saved right now. Whereas, we place our hope in God and are willing to wait to find out what He decides (1 Corinthians 4:4-5).

      The problem, as they see it, is this. Correct me if I’m wrong.

      1. A Catholic says, we have an infallible interpreter of the Scriptures. The Church.
      2. Their objection is then, “who interprets the Church?”

      If you interpret the Church and you are fallible, then you are in the same boat as we. You, the Catholic, are a fallible interpreter of an infallible source.

      Therefore, if we, the Protestants can’t be certain about what we believe. You can’t either.

      It is a difficult conundrum to overcome.

      The problem being that both the Protestant premise and their syllogism are wrong. But most of us follow their premise and syllogism when we argue the point. And that leads to their conclusions.

      1st. Our emphasis is not absolute certainty. Our emphasis is on belief (aka faith). As St. Augustine put it, “God doesn’t ask us to understand. God asks us to believe.”

      2nd. We are not fallible interpreters of an infallible source. We are fallible believers of the infallible Teacher of the inerrant word of God which is contained in both Tradition and Scripture.

      3rd. They are the fallible interpreters of the inerrant Word contained in Scripture. Effectually negating the grace which God gave the human race when He provided for us the infallible Teacher which produced the inerrant written record of His plan for our salvation.

      So, I’ll try to put that into a Catholic Syllogism.

      1. The Catholic says, we have an infallible Teacher of the inerrant Word of God.
      2. We believe that infallible Teacher produces doctrines which contain no error.
      3. We have more certainty of that infallible Teachers doctrines than anything we could produce ourselves.

      The question might be asked. How can you be certain that you understand it correctly? We can’t. We have faith it is taught correctly and we believe the Teacher is given the grace of God to do so. We are certain of the Teacher even if we are not certain of ourselves.

      That of course, leads to the cynical objection, “then you have checked your brain at the door.”

      My response is, “what’s wrong with that?”

      Proverbs 3:5
      Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

      Hebrews 13:7
      King James Version (KJV)
      7 Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.

      Matthew 18:17
      King James Version (KJV)
      17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.


      De Maria

  5. Devin,

    I don’t know about the precision of my language, but listening to the radio program was a good occasion for me to try to think about this once more. I admire you for stepping up to the mic. I would have to be hard pressed to set aside the safe pace of the keyboard for the briskness of radio.

    1. Thanks Andrew,

      I always enjoy such discussions and have had a ton of them in person with Protestant friends, family, pastors, etc. over the years. Of course this one was recorded and with Nate, a stranger to me, and I was mindful that there was an audience, otherwise I would have said at some point, “let’s read Aquinas right now on faith, knowledge, opinion, and its relation to the Church and see if we can get to the root of where we differ.”

      God bless you and thanks again for your help dissecting our positions,

  6. Hi Devin,

    You said,

    In my debate with Nathanael Taylor, his argument claimed that individual fallibility renders us all equally uncertain about matters of faith. In other words, due to the fact that we are fallible human actors, no one person can have any greater epistemic certainty than another.

    If your rendering of his argument is accurate, it is illogical on the grounds that we could not have any teachers. The Scripture acknowledges that God sends us teachers. Secular society acknowledges that we have teachers.

    And teachers generally have more certainty about there field of expertise than other, less knowledgeable individuals.

    So, fallibility does not render anyone equally uncertain. Even without the question of the infallibility of the Church being considered.


    De Maria

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