On Analogies, and the Uses Thereof

In essays such as “Three In One“, I’ve scorned the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

If a claim is labeled beyond our ability to understand, then how are we supposed to tell if it is true? What assurance do theists have that the Trinity is a true fact about the world that is genuinely beyond our ability to comprehend, as opposed to a false claim invented by people whose illogical nature is protected from scrutiny by labeling it a mystery we aren’t intended to understand?

But is this claim too hasty? A Christian site admits the idea seemingly defies logic and reason, but compares it to modern scientific theories that also have highly counterintuitive implications:

It a strict sense, the doctrine of the Trinity does not violate logic at all—at least no more than quantum physics or general relativity.

We can talk about it rather thoroughly. What we can’t do is imagine how it could work. But the same is true for quantum physics and relativity.

It’s true that the analogies proposed to explain relativity, like depicting spacetime as a rubber sheet, on the surface seem no more or less comprehensible than C.S. Lewis’ analogy of the Trinity as a cube:

On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.

But there is a significant point of difference here, which is that in the case of general relativity or quantum mechanics the analogies, are not the whole of the theory. The analogies are just superficial descriptions of an intricate and incredibly precise mathematical framework that allows us to make confident and astonishingly accurate predictions about the natural world. We do not need to be able to fully grasp the principles involved, because we can test and verify in a quantifiable way that the idea is true.

But with doctrines like the Trinity, there is no deeper understanding, no underlying mathematics. The vague and imperfect analogies are not backed by a model of precise predictive power; the vague and imperfect analogies are all there is. From the vantage point of the naive observer, these two might look similar, as I wrote in “The View From the Ground“. But it is a false equivalence: though they both have an outer structure of metaphor and analogy, one of these ideas is backed by a solid core of evidence, while the other is built on insubstantial air.

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