Interpretation of McDowell’s Trilemma

I summarize the premises of the Trilmma argument in Evidence that Demands a Verdict as follows:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.
2. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus knew that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar.
3. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus did not know that he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill.
4. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar.
5. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill.

The conclusion of McDowell’s Trilemma argument is deceptively simple:

6. Jesus was God.

I use the past tense here instead of present tense for a couple of reasons. First, the basic factual premise upon which this conclusion is based is stated in the past tense: “Jesus claimed to be God.” Second, if the conclusion were stated as “Jesus is God” that would imply that Jesus is still alive or in existence, but the argument does not specifically deal with Jesus’ alleged resurrection. So, this seems to be a stronger claim than what the argument is intended to prove.

I suppose if one could prove that Jesus was God at some point in time about 2,000 years ago, one could go on to argue that Jesus must still exist, since God is, by definition, eternal and immortal. But McDowell does not present any such reasoning, so I think it best to limit the conclusion to the narrower claim about the historical Jesus.

What did McDowell mean by this conclusion? What does the word “God” mean in (6) and in premise (1)? Does McDowell mean that Jesus was “a god”? Does he mean that Jesus had developed a close spiritual relationship with the personal God of Western theism? Does he mean that Jesus had achieved mystical union with the Absolute, with the divine as understood by Eastern mysticism? I don’t think McDowell had any of these ideas in mind when asserting the conclusion of the Trilemma. I think he intended something like this:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

If this interpretation of (6) is correct, then premise (1) should be interpreted similarly, in order for the argument to be logically valid (to avoid the logical error of equivocation):

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

That this is what McDowell had in mind can be seen most clearly in his short book, More than a Carpenter (hereafter:MTC). The Trilemma argument is presented in Chapter 2 of MTC. In Chapter 1, McDowell argues that Jesus claimed to be God, premise (1) of the Trilemma. So, we can see what McDowell had in mind by (1) and (6) based on comments he makes in Chapter 1 of MTC. Here are some key points from that Chapter:

· Jesus ‘ claim to be God distinguishes him from all other major religious leaders, including Buddha. (p.10)
· Jesus claims about himself described him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher.” (p.10)
· The word “God” in this context means the “inifinite and perfect spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end”. (p.10)
· In Western theism, “God is personal and…the universe was planned and created by him”. (p.10-11)

Since Buddha claimed to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism, and since McDowell asserts that Jesus’ claim to be God distinguishes Jesus from Buddha, we can reasonably set aside the interpretation that Jesus was claiming to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism; this is not the claim that McDowell is making in the conclusion of the Trilemma.

Furthermore, we can set aside the interpretation that Jesus was merely claiming to have achieved a close relationship with the God of Western theism, because according to McDowell, Jesus’ claim identifies him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher”. A prophet claims to have a very close relationship with God, one in which God communicates advice and wisdom clearly and directly to the prophet, unlike how God relates to ordinary believers. Jesus, according to McDowell, is making a stronger claim than that.

Because McDowell clarifies the meaning of the word “God” in the context of clarifying the meaning the claim that Jesus was God, it is clear that the meaning he spells out is intended to clarify what the word “God” means in the conclusion of the Trilemma argument and also in premise (1).

By “God” McDowell means the “infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end” and who “planned and created” the universe. Thus, the conclusion of the Trilemma should be understood as implying that Jesus is the infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end, and the personal being who planned and created the universe. This meaning is captured by my paraphrase of the conclusion:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

Western theism, as McDowell correctly points out, posits the existence of a personal being who planned and created the universe.

One final bit of evidence provides additional support for this interpretation of the Trilemma. In Chapter 1 of MTC, McDowell comments that the scriptures attribute characteristics to Jesus that belong only to God, and in listing some of the attributes, McDowell also clarifies what he means by the word “God” in the context of the Trilemma:

The Scriptures attribute characteristics to him [Jesus] that can be true only of God. Jesus is presented as self-existent…omnipresent…omniscient… [and] omnipotent… (p.11)

These characteristics constitute standard conditions that philosophers often use to define the word “God” in terms of Western theism. McDowell could hardly be any clearer than this, implying that the concepts commonly used to define the word “God” apply to Jesus. Any person who is self-existent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent can honestly and correctly claim to literally be the personal God of Western theism.

Based on McDowell’s comments in Chapter 1 of MTC, a Chapter that focuses on establishing the key premise of the Trilemma (i.e. “Jesus claimed to be God.”), a Chapter that immediately precedes a Chapter that lays out the Trilemma argument, it is clear what the word “God” means in the Trilemma argument, and it is clear that my proposed interpretation of the conclusion is in keeping with the intended meaning and purpose of the argument.

Because the conclusion makes this strong claim about Jesus, the first premise should be interpreted similarly, otherwise the argument would commit the fallacy of equivocation, and the argument would be dead on arrival.

The basic idea of the Trilemma is that Jesus claimed something about himself, and that we are forced to conclude that this claim is true. The conclusion of the Trilemma is that Jesus was literally the God of Western theism, so the claim made by Jesus about himself has to be the same or an equivalent claim:

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

If (6a) correctly interprets the meaning of the conclusion of the Trilemma, then (1a) is the best interpretation of the first premise.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01150268020024006797 rgb

    I admit to being confused. What is the point of this? First, IIRC the trilemma posed is originally due to C. S. Lewis, not McDowell, where it is known as “Liar, Lunatic or Lord”. Second, the entire trilemma is a farce even in Lewis’s original version. Why are these the only three possibilities? Why not simply “mistaken”? I can have beliefs (even potentially crazy ones) about myself and simply be incorrect.

    Why not the simplest of all explanations? That Jesus knew perfectly well that he wasn’t God, stated it clearly in Mark where he noted that it was forgiveable to blaspheme against either him or his supposed dad but not against the holy spirit, but that the more grandiose mythologizing in Matthew and Luke (who completely contradict one another on details of Jesus’s supposed birth) and especially John (written long after Jesus’s death) present us with the mythical words of a fictional Jesus claiming to be God where Jesus himself made no such claim.

    Or the always possible “there was never any such person as Jesus of Nazareth”, not at all implausible given the utter lack of eyewitness, contemporary accounts. Liar, Lunatic, Lord, Mistaken, Misquoted, or Mythical make this at least a hexilemma, but of course this almost certainly doesn’t exhaust the possibilities either.

    rgb

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12763971505497961430 Jeffrey Shallit

    Yet another problem is that “insanity” is not a black-and-white condition. A person may be sane, and yet given to flights of ridiculous fancy. SImilarly, a person may be insane, and yet say sensible things. Furthermore, a person can move rather rapidly between sane and insane states. So “lunatic” is completely inadequate to describe a person that may have been delusional, while occasionally saying worthwhile and true statements.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    I second rgb’s question, Bradley: What is the point of your posts about the Trilemma? Doing one’s utmost to be clear on the meaning of an argument is one thing. But there are so many basic problems with this particular argument, on any interpretation of it, that the argument is indeed dead on arrival. It’s a stinking, rotting corpse that you’re telling us so much about. Your interpretation of it only makes it deader, and so you might have ended your interpretation by saying something like, “Given that my interpretation is the best one, even while it shows clearly what’s horribly, horribly wrong with the Trilemma, we can safely ignore the Trilemma.” But you don’t explicitly draw this conclusion. One might suspect you’re some sort of mole for McDowell.

    Let’s grant that the argument is assuming that Jesus claimed to be (1) the “infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end” and (2) the divine person who “planned and created” the universe. (1) is perfectly compatible with Eastern and with Western mysticism, which runs against what you say in the post. (2) is heretical, since the person who planned and created the universe is God the Father, and most Christians believe Jesus was a Son, not the Father. Saying that Jesus shares an “infinite spirit” with the Father, or Creator, which is something a mystic can say about anyone, is different from saying that Jesus is the same person as the Father.

    Arguably, the Bible doesn’t have Jesus say clearly and without self-contradiction that he’s God in the sense of either (1) or (2). If the Bible does say this–as in John, the latest, most self-contradictory, and least historically reliable gospel–it contradicts the parts where it says Jesus said or implied something different about his identity. But even if the Bible were clear about saying that Jesus claimed to be God in the Trilemma’s sense, there would indeed be the very plausible alternative explanation that the Bible records only what some people thought about Jesus, not what Jesus himself said, assuming Jesus even existed as an historical person which is hardly beyond doubt. So premise (1) is false six ways from Sunday, making the argument dead on arrival. McDowell can thank your interpretation of the argument for showing us why the argument shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    The Bible, which McDowell relies on, says Jesus was a man (a human person). Saying that Jesus had a human as well as a divine nature is incoherent, unless all humans have a divine nature, given pantheism or Eastern or Western mysticism. In relying on the Bible, which contradicts itself about Jesus’s identity, the Trilemma also contradicts itself. Therefore, if premise (1) isn’t false, it certainly makes the argument incoherent, by contradicting the conclusion. The name “Jesus” in the first premise can be replaced with, “A human (mortal and non-divine) person, called such by the Bible.” Thus, taking into account more of what the Bible says about Jesus, premise (1) should read, “A mortal, human person claimed to be an immortal, nonhuman person.” The conclusion affirms that Jesus was an immortal, nonhuman person, but premise (1), in speaking about Jesus whom the Bible elsewhere identifies as a man, affirms that Jesus was mortal and human. This incoherence also makes the argument dead on arrival. Again, in pointing out that McDowell relies on the Bible’s contradictory identifications of Jesus, your interpretation helps us see why the argument shouldn’t be taken seriously.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    rgb said…

    I admit to being confused. What is the point of this? First, IIRC the trilemma posed is originally due to C. S. Lewis, not McDowell, where it is known as “Liar, Lunatic or Lord”.
    ===============
    Comments:

    FYI – CS Lewis was NOT the originator of the Trilemma. See my previous posts on the Trilemma.

    McDowell obviously got the basic idea from CS Lewis, but he clarified and enhanced the logic of the argument, so he deserves credit for the argument that I have summarized,symbolized, and proved to be valid.

    Speaking of points, what is your point here? Lewis gave a version of the Trilemma, then McDowell modified it and gave his version. McDowell’s version is the version I chose to analyze. If you want to analyze Lewis’ version you are free to do so. Why do I have an obligation to analyze Lewis’ version just because it was an earlier version than McDowell’s?

    McDowell’s version is probably more widely read and used, and is, in my opinion, a clearer and better argument,so I chose to analyze his version first. Someday I might do the same for the version by Lewis.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    rgb said…

    Why are these the only three possibilities? Why not simply "mistaken"? I can have beliefs (even potentially crazy ones) about myself and simply be incorrect.

    …Why are these the only three possibilities? Why not simply "mistaken"? I can have beliefs (even potentially crazy ones) about myself and simply be incorrect.

    ===============
    Comments:

    Like many others, your unclear and confused attempt at a counterexample fails.

    First, you need to identify the target of your counterexample. I take it that the target is premise (3): "If Jesus claimed to be God, and he was not God, and he did not know he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill."

    What you have given a counterexample to is the following generalization:

    (G) Anyone who makes a false claim and who does not know that the claim is false is mentally ill.

    Your vague counterexample might refute (G), but premise (3) is NOT based on (G), so your countexample fails as an objection to (3).

    Why are there only three possibilities? Either Jesus was God or it is not the case that Jesus was God. That is two possibilities. Can you describe a third possibility here? Good luck!

    The second possibility is divided into two by McDowell: Either Jesus knew he was not God or it is not the case that Jesus knew he was not God. That is two possibilities. Can you describe a third possibility here? Good luck!

    Given these two logical breakdowns, there are only three logical possibilities:

    1. G
    2. ~G & K
    3. ~G & ~K

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    rgb said…

    Why not the simplest of all explanations? That Jesus knew perfectly well that he wasn’t God, stated it clearly in Mark where he noted that it was forgiveable to blaspheme against either him or his supposed dad but not against the holy spirit, but that the more grandiose mythologizing in Matthew and Luke (who completely contradict one another on details of Jesus’s supposed birth) and especially John (written long after Jesus’s death) present us with the mythical words of a fictional Jesus claiming to be God where Jesus himself made no such claim.
    =========
    Comments:
    You are objecting to premise (1) of the Trilemma, and this is how I would object as well. I think this is the weakest premise in the argument, so it is the premise that I would focus on, and the premise I have focused on in my critique:

    http://crossexamination.blogspot.com/search/label/Trilemma

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Jeffrey Shallit said…

    Yet another problem is that “insanity” is not a black-and-white condition. A person may be sane, and yet given to flights of ridiculous fancy. SImilarly, a person may be insane, and yet say sensible things. Furthermore, a person can move rather rapidly between sane and insane states. So “lunatic” is completely inadequate to describe a person that may have been delusional, while occasionally saying worthwhile and true statements.

    ============
    Comments:

    I used the term “mentally ill” not “insane” and not “lunatic”, but your points still stand, and are good points that are worth keeping in mind.

    However, it is unclear to me that this clarification about the nature of mental illness does any damage to the Trilemma argument.

    What is your point? If you are saying that Jesus had episodes of mental illness in which he claimed to be God, and other times when he was more rational, then I don’t think you have a strong objection.

    Are you objecting to one of the premises of the argument? If so, which one? Are you objecting to an inference in the argument? If so, which one? Are you objecting to an assumption behind one of the premises? Which premise and what is the assumption?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Philip said…

    What is the point of your posts about the Trilemma? Doing one’s utmost to be clear on the meaning of an argument is one thing. But there are so many basic problems with this particular argument, on any interpretation of it, that the argument is indeed dead on arrival. It’s a stinking, rotting corpse that you’re telling us so much about.
    ================

    Comments:

    Yes, I heard that view expressed before. Refuting this argument is like shooting fish in a barrell. Except that when the gunsmoke clears all the fish are still swimingly contentedly in the barrell.

    If you and other people who commented on the Trilemma had managed to produce a number of solid obections and refutations, I would be more inclined to your opinion. That did not happen. So, your opinion about the Trilemma is dubious.

    I think the argument is much better than you and others are willing to admit (or able to see). I think it is more difficult to refute than you and others believe. I won’t settle for vague, confused, half-ass objections to the Trilemma.

    I want the real meal deal. I want objections that are clear, strong, and well-justified.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Philip said:

    Arguably, the Bible doesn’t have Jesus say clearly and without self-contradiction that he’s God in the sense of either (1) or (2). If the Bible does say this–as in John, the latest, most self-contradictory, and least historically reliable gospel–it contradicts the parts where it says Jesus said or implied something different about his identity.
    ==============
    Comments: I agree with your objection here, but this needs to be argued, not merely asserted.

    Also, McDowell is not a philosopher, so we should not hold him strictly to the one definition he presents for “God”. He presents multiple characterizations and definitions, as can be seen in the points I mentioned in the post. Taken together, the various characterizations point to a Western concept of God, and away from an Eastern concept of the divine or ultimate reality.

    Jesus need not have spelled out a specific definition of God in order for McDowell’s characterizations and definitions of “God” to be appropriate.

    If first century Jews generally accepted a Western concept of God, and if the teachings of Jesus do not show evidence of a new or radically different conception of God, then if Jesus claimed to be God in that context, that would be sufficient grounds for inferring that the specific details and characterizations of “God” that McDowell points to (e.g. a personal being who created the universe, and who is omniscient and omnipotent, etc.) appropriately characterize Jesus’ (alleged) self-description.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Philip said..

    But even if the Bible were clear about saying that Jesus claimed to be God in the Trilemma’s sense, there would indeed be the very plausible alternative explanation that the Bible records only what some people thought about Jesus, not what Jesus himself said…
    =========
    Comments: I agree with your objection here, but this needs to be argued and not just asserted.

    You are attacking premise (1) here, and that seems very reasonable to me. I view this as the weakest and most dubious premise of the Trilemma, at least until you or someone else convinces me that some other premise of the argument is equally questionable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Philip said…

    Therefore, if premise (1) isn’t false, it certainly makes the argument incoherent, by contradicting the conclusion. The name “Jesus” in the first premise can be replaced with, “A human (mortal and non-divine) person, called such by the Bible.” Thus, taking into account more of what the Bible says about Jesus, premise (1) should read, “A mortal, human person claimed to be an immortal, nonhuman person.” The conclusion affirms that Jesus was an immortal, nonhuman person, but premise (1), in speaking about Jesus whom the Bible elsewhere identifies as a man, affirms that Jesus was mortal and human. This incoherence also makes the argument dead on arrival.
    ===============

    Comments: Nice try, but I’m not persuaded yet.

    You beg the question in assuming that a human being cannot be immortal and divine. Perhaps you can come up with an argument to support that assumption, but you cannot just make such a controversial assumption and then base an objection on it.

    If you can manage to prove that a human being cannot be immortal and cannot be divine, then you will have disproved a basic doctrine of Christianity and that would undermine the whole point of the Trilemma, but I’m not so sure that it would constitute a solid objection to the Trilemma argument.

    If I grant your controversial assumption for the sake of argument, premise (1) could still be true, and so could the conclusion of the Trilemma: Jesus could have been a deity a divine person who was mistaken for a human being. This was the view of the Gnostic Christians. In this case, your assumption would be true, and premise (1) of the Trilemma could also be true, and the conclusion that “Jesus was God” could also be true.

    So, your objection here (a) begs the question, and (b) will not fly even if you do manage to come up with a solid argument for your controversial assumption.

    The fish are still darting around in that barrell. Better reload.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12763971505497961430 Jeffrey Shallit

    I’m sorry, I thought my point was clear. But since it apparently wasn’t, here it is again, restated.

    It could be the case that at some time T, Jesus claimed to be God and was mentally ill. So 3 is true at some time T. But 5 is a universal claim about all times T, and that cannot be established so easily. It could well be that 3 was true at time T and 5 was true at all other times. This is not ruled out by the logic of the argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12763971505497961430 Jeffrey Shallit

    I should also admit not be convinced by (3): “If Jesus claimed to be God, and he was not God, and he did not know he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill.”

    I can easily see a circumstance in which someone could claim to be God, who was not God, and did not know it, and yet not be mentally ill. For example, imagine a child who is raised from age 0 by people who believe he is God. Such a child, surrounded by people who are convinced of this fact, would also come to believe it. Yet I claim such a belief would not be mental illness. It would be mistaken, but not mental illness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Interesting discussion. I must say I agree with Jeffrey Shallit’s last argument.

    In any case I would like to comment on the point of whether Christianity’s claim that Jesus was both fully human and fully God is coherent or not. As I have already argued a common interpretation of this claim, namely that Jesus experienced life both as a human being and as God is incoherent because the human experience is characterized by boundedness while the divine experience is characterized by unboundedness. Not to mention contradicts significant parts of the Gospels (such as when Jesus cried “my God, my God, why have You forsaken me”, or when Jesus prayed to God to remove the cup of poison). But there is another interpretation which is based on the realization that experience entails both the object and the subject of that experience. So for example imagine a human imbibing some drug that would make them experience for a while what an eagle flying overhead experiences (as some science fiction stories have it). Such a state of affairs is certainly a logical possibility. In the case of Jesus then the following might have been the case: that the experience of Jesus was fully human, but that the subject of that experience was God. This latter interpretation strikes me as coherent and comports with the Christian claim that Jesus was fully God and fully human. But this latter interpretation does not comport with the trilemma’s first premise, namely that Jesus claimed literally to be God. At best Jesus might have claimed union with God, using language that is actually common in the history of mysticism both East and West.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Jeffrey Shallit said…

    It could be the case that at some time T, Jesus claimed to be God and was mentally ill. So 3 is true at some time T. But 5 is a universal claim about all times T, and that cannot be established so easily. It could well be that 3 was true at time T and 5 was true at all other times. This is not ruled out by the logic of the argument.

    ===========

    Thank you for the clarification.

    There is definitely some room for improving the clarity of the Trilemma argument in relation to time. But I believe that the argument, once so clarified, would not be subject to your objection.

    Mental illness can occur in episodes or phases, as can being a liar. So you are right in pointing out the temporal aspect of these conditions, and right in questioning what this means for the soundness of the Trilemma argument.

    I would think that Jesus claim to be God in premise (1) is supposed to have occurred on more than one occasion, from McDowell’s point of view. So, premise (3) although not applicable to all moments of Jesus’ life, would apply to multiple occasions or times.

    As far as (5) is concerned, it’s scope can be limited to the occasions or times in question, although it would then rest on some generalizations about Jesus’ mental health over a period of time that includes those occasions. The reasoning supporting (5) would be inductive and would aim to make (5) probably true rather than certainly true. Premise (5) is clearly an empirical claim, so one would not have expected the premise to be 100% certain anyway.

    If Jesus had an episode of mental illness in which he temporarily believed he was God, and later recovered from this episode, I would expect that he would cease claiming to be God and also retract his earlier claim to be God, if he were an honest person, a person of moral integrity.

    I’m not aware of any instance where Jesus is reported as apologizing for statements or actions that he made or did during an episode of mental illness. Nor is there a report of Jesus mentioning a previous episode of mental illness for any reason.

    Although it is possible that Jesus experienced multiple episodes of mental illness in which he claimed to be God and then at other times was more rational and did not view himself as being God, this seems improbable given the evidence that we have.

    Let me take a shot at clarifying the Trilemma in relation to the temporal aspects of mental illness and of being a liar:

    1t. Jesus claimed at various times (T1, T2, and T3)to be God.
    2t. If Jesus claimed at various times (T1, T2, and T3) to be God, and Jesus was not God at those times, and Jesus knew at those times that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar at times T1, T2, and T3.
    3t. If Jesus claimed at various times (T1, T2, and T3)to be God, and Jesus was not God at those times, and Jesus did not know at those times that he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill at times T1, T2, and T3.
    4t. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar at times T1, T2, and T3.
    5t. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill at times T1, T2, and T3.
    Therefore:
    6t. Jesus was God at times T1, T2,and T3.

    The basic factual claim in the first premise becomes more complex and more difficult to support, but I think McDowell would be willing to assert and defend (1t).

    Your point about the nature of mental illness is correct (and the same point applies to the concept of being a liar). However, I think the argument can be clarified in terms of there being multiple occasions on which Jesus made the claim, and the argument (including premises 4 and 5) can then focus in on those specific occasions, thus avoiding your objection.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Jeffrey Shallit said…

    I can easily see a circumstance in which someone could claim to be God, who was not God, and did not know it, and yet not be mentally ill. For example, imagine a child who is raised from age 0 by people who believe he is God. Such a child, surrounded by people who are convinced of this fact, would also come to believe it. Yet I claim such a belief would not be mental illness. It would be mistaken, but not mental illness.
    =================

    This is a counterexample to the following generalization:

    (G) Anyone who claims to be God, and who is not God, and who does not know that he/she is not God, is mentally ill.

    If your counterexample is a good one, it refutes (G). But (G) is not logically equivalent to (3), so refuting (G) does not appear to refute (3).

    However, it is plausible to see (G) as the reason or basis for asserting (3), so if your counterexample is successful, you will have refuted a generalization that MIGHT be a reason supporting (3). McDowell does not clearly spell out a case for (3), so it is not clear that (G) is in fact a reason that he would give in support of (3), but it is a plausible guess that he would give (G) as a reason for (3).

    I’m not sure whether your counterexample would be successful against a clarified version of this generalization:

    (G’) Anyone who claims to literally be the God of Western theism, and who is not literally the God of Western theism, and who does not know that he/she is not literally the God of Western theism, is mentally ill.

    The reason I hesitate to accept your counterexample to (G’) is that I don’t think your counterexample would work against some other similar generalizations:

    (H) Anyone who claims to literally be the number seven, and who is not literally the number seven, and who does not know that he/she is not literally the number seven, is mentally ill.

    (I) Anyone who claims to literally be a hardboiled egg, and who is not literally a hardboiled egg, and who does not know that he/she is not literally a hardboiled egg, is mentally ill.

    (J) Anyone who claims to literally be an elephant, and who is not literally an elephant, and who does not know that he/she is not literally an elephant, is mentally ill.

    (K) Anyone who claims to literally be Mao Tse-tung, and who is not literally Mao Tse-tung, and who does not know that he/she is not literally Mao Tse-tung, is mentally ill.

    I suppose the reason for my hesitation, has to do with the obviousness of not being X. It is just obvious that I am not the number seven, because I am a living creature and numbers are abstractions, and saying that a living creature is a certain sort of abstraction would involve an obvious category mistake.

    It is just obvious that I am not a boiled egg, because boiled eggs are just a few inches tall and have a definite oval outline when viewed from most angles, and I am several feet tall, and don’t have a definite oval outline when viewed from most angles. You get the idea. So, the success of your counterexample depends on the degree to which it is obvious that an ordinary human being is not literally the God of Western theism.

    Premise (3) is a conditional claim, having the form “If P, then Q.” If we interpret this as a material conditional, then showing that it is possible for circumstances to be such that P would be true and Q would be false, would refute the conditional claim. The antecedent in this case is that Jesus claims to be God (or more precisely: Jesus claims to literally be the God of Western theism). So, a counterexample to the material conditional would need to include Jesus making this claim, not just some child or other.

    Your counterexample could be modified to suit this purpose. Suppose that Jesus was an ordinary human being (not literally the God of Western theism), but that he had been raised from birth by Mary and Joseph and other relatives to believe that he was the promised Messiah, and to believe that the Messiah would be God himself. Suppose that the constant affirmation and reinforcement of these beliefs led Jesus to also believe that he was the promised Messiah and that he was therefore God himself. You would claim that such a Jesus would be merely mistaken and would not be mentally ill.

    This modified version of your counterexample is (at least) relevant to the truth of premise (3). And this modified counterexample has some plausibility too.

    I would be willing to accept this counterexample, if you could persuade me that when an ordinary human being is not literally the God of Western theism, this fact is much less obvious than when an ordinary human being is not a hardboiled egg, not an elephant, or not Mao Tse-tung.

    I think of literally being the God of Western theism as involving characteristics like (a) being all-powerful, (b) being all-knowing, and (c) being a perfectly good person. It seems to me that it is about as obvious that I am not all powerful, as that I am not a hardboiled egg, and as that I am not an elephant, and as that I am not Mao Tse-tung. It seems to me that it is about as obvious that I am not a perfectly good person, as that I am not a hardboiled egg, etc.

    For this reason, I am not inclined to agree that my modified version of your counterexample successfully refutes premise (3).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11444305270383816724 El Profe

    The main problem of this logical trick (and there are many) is that it may prove that Jesus was God, but it pre-assumes the existence of God.

    Also, what’s to make this Trilemma work only for Jesus? Not only does it not tell us what is the basis for 2) and 3) (that is: how does it establish that Jesus was, in fact, neither a liar nor mentally ill), but it does nothing to keep the same Trilemma from being applied to any other guy who considers himself to be god.

    Let’s assume my grandfather James claimed to be the Western God of the Israelites.
    If he was not a liar, and he was not mentally ill, he was therefore also God.

    Now, I know that does not invalidate the Trilemma, since my example is not a counterexample to it. But it does drive McDowell’s point to the ground: what’s the use of the Trilemma if it fails to prove that Jesus AND ONLY Jesus was God?

    Also, how exactly are you refuting the Trilemma yourself? Your post offers no counter-argument. Is it in a previous one?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    By the way, how do we know Jesus wasn’t mentally ill or a liar? Assuming Jesus taught people to be ethical, that doesn’t show that he himself was either at all ethical or perfectly so. Some people are hypocrites, you know: they say one thing and do another. Do we know that Jesus was against lying, under all circumstances?

    What reason do we have to believe that Jesus wasn’t mentally ill? None at all. It’s certainly simpler to believe that, assuming Jesus said he is the creator of the universe, or is God in a way that no other human is, Jesus was indeed lying or was mentally ill. The Trilemma can assert that Jesus wasn’t lying or mentally ill, but I see no reason to favour the orthodox Christian interpretation, that Jesus was God, over either of these two simpler, naturalistic explanations. That’s yet another basic problem with this trilemma argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    El Profe said…

    The main problem of this logical trick (and there are many) is that it may prove that Jesus was God, but it pre-assumes the existence of God.

    ==========
    Comments:

    The main problem with this objection is that it is false. Another problem is that you don’t give any reasons or explanation to support this objection.

    I will, however, give my reasons for saying this objection is false.

    Premise (1) does not assume that God exists. One can claim to be God, even if there is no God.

    Premise (2) does not assume that God exists. For example, if Jesus knew that he was not God because he knew that no such being existed, he could have lied about being God in order to take advantage of gullible religious believers.

    Premise (3) does not assume that God exists. If Jesus claimed to be God because he was mentally ill, he would have to believe that God exists, but given that he was mentally ill his belief in God might have no connection to reality. In fact, his being mentally ill would be just one more example of a natural evil that casts doubt on the existence of God. So, (3) is compatible with the non-existence of God.

    Premise (4) does not assume the existence of God. A person can be honest and have moral integrity even if there is no God. Some believers mistakenly think that belief in God is pychologically required for a person to be honest and to have moral integrity, but even if we grant this (obviously false) psychological claim, Jesus could have been honest based on his personal belief in God, and yet his belief in the existence of God was mistaken. One can believe in the existence of God even if there is no God. So, premise (4) does not assume the existence of God.

    Premise (5) does not assume the existence of God. Most people are not mentally ill, but that does not mean that God exists. To the extent that mental illness impedes one’s ability to survive and reproduce, evolution will tend to reduce the genetic factors that incline us towards mental illness. We can explain the predominance of rationality (meaning absence of serious mental illnesses) apart from the existence of God. So, Jesus could have been mentally healthy even if there were no such being as God.

    None of the premises of the Trilemma assume the existence of God. So, “the main problem” that you see with the Trilemma does not exist.

    I sympathize with your calling this argument a “logical trick”. It is surpising that such simple factual premises can yeild a conclusion that does imply the existence of God. God is like a rabbit pulled out of a magician’s hat here.

    It does appear to be the case that the Trilemma could function as an argument for the existence of God, even though McDowell does not seem to be aware of this, or to intend the argument to be used for that purpose.

    But I stand behind the logic of the Trilemma. It is the premises that are subject to challenge, not the logic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11444305270383816724 El Profe

    I see your point. Clearly, my knowledge of formal logic is too limited to construct a working formal counterexample. I must say I enjoy learning about the intricacies of logic.

    Let’s go back, then. How does McDowell justify 3) and 4)?
    They seem to be merely assumptions based in… what?

    I’m guessing McDowell based these assumptions on scripture (the only “records” on the life of Jesus.) Therefore, it might be part of his justification (even if outside the formal logic of the argument) that the narratives of the apostles are historically accurate descriptions of the life of a man (who happened to also be God) named Jesus.
    Now, if he is assuming that, why does he need the Trilemma in the first place? Perhaps because the Gospels do not say right out that he was God?

    If he is NOT basing his claims about the sanity and honesty of Jesus on the Gospels, what is he basing those on?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    El Profe said…

    [...]

    Also, what’s to make this Trilemma work only for Jesus? Not only does it not tell us what is the basis for 2) and 3) (that is: how does it establish that Jesus was, in fact, neither a liar nor mentally ill), but it does nothing to keep the same Trilemma from being applied to any other guy who considers himself to be god.

    Let’s assume my grandfather James claimed to be the Western God of the Israelites.
    If he was not a liar, and he was not mentally ill, he was therefore also God.

    Now, I know that does not invalidate the Trilemma, since my example is not a counterexample to it. But it does drive McDowell’s point to the ground: what’s the use of the Trilemma if it fails to prove that Jesus AND ONLY Jesus was God?
    =========================
    Comment:

    I think you mean premises (4) and (5):

    4. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar.
    5. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill.

    I agree that if we have low standards for establishing that someone is not a liar and is not mentally ill, then this argument might show that many people are God, not just Jesus.

    But, to be fair to McDowell and his argument, I don’t know of many people who claim to be God and who appear to be completely sane and rational. Of course it does matter what is meant by “claiming to be God”. I interpret premise (1) as attributing a strong claim to Jesus, along the lines of this: Jesus claimed to literally be the God of Western theism. Understood in this way, the claim of a human to be God is surprising and unusual. I see it as not too far removed from a claim like: Tom claimed to literally be an elephant. How many sane people do you know who have claimed to literally be an elephant?

    If premise (1) is interpreted more loosely, as a claim to some kind of spiritual closeness or intimacy with God, then of course many apparently sane people make such claims.

    The honesty and sanity of Jesus is argued for by McDowell, but he has a naive and uncritical view of the Gospels as being accurate and reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, and I think he is also relying on cultural prejudices in favor of Jesus. Many would consider it rude and offensive for someone to argue that Jesus was a liar or mentally ill. But if the Trilemma is to be taken seriously, we need to examine these possibilities in an objective and scholarly way, and not simply follow the prejudices of the herd.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    El Profe said…
    [...]

    Let’s go back, then. How does McDowell justify 3) and 4)?
    They seem to be merely assumptions based in… what?

    I’m guessing McDowell based these assumptions on scripture (the only “records” on the life of Jesus.) Therefore, it might be part of his justification (even if outside the formal logic of the argument) that the narratives of the apostles are historically accurate descriptions of the life of a man (who happened to also be God) named Jesus.

    Now, if he is assuming that, why does he need the Trilemma in the first place? Perhaps because the Gospels do not say right out that he was God?
    ===============
    Comments:

    I think you mean premises (4) and (5).

    Yes, McDowell believes the Gospels are accurate and reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, and this naive assumption hurts his case for (4) and (5).

    The Gospels and NT writings do not come right out and say that “Jesus was God”, although Jesus was viewed as something more than just another Jewish prophet.

    In any case, even if the authors of the Gospels or other NT writings claimed that “Jesus was God”, this would presumably be a statement of theological belief rather than a straightforward observation, like “Jesus had brown eyes” or “Jesus spoke Aramaic” or “Jesus often taught using parables”.

    Since “Jesus was God” is not a straightforward observational claim, it is also not a straightforward historical claim. For this reason it would be questionable for McDowell to appeal to the Gospels or other NT writings as direct historical evidence or testimony that “Jesus was God”, while it is not as questionable for him to appeal to the Gospels or NT writings as evidence for historical claims about the sanity and honesty of Jesus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    El Profe said…

    I see your point. Clearly, my knowledge of formal logic is too limited to construct a working formal counterexample. I must say I enjoy learning about the intricacies of logic.
    ===================
    Comments:

    You can safely ignore my mention of “material conditionals”. You don’t need knowledge of formal logic to understand a key point about the logic of counterexamples to premises (2) and (3).

    These conditional claims presumably rest upon generalizations. A hallmark of rationality is the use of principles, rules, and generalizations, as opposed to thinking that is arbitrary and ad hoc.

    Let’s consider premise (2):

    2. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus knew that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar.

    Different principles at different levels of generality might be assumed here as the basis or reason for (2):

    (G1) Anyone who makes a claim, when the claim is false, is a liar.

    (G1) might be assumed to be the reason for (2). But it is easy to come up with counterexamples to (G1). Since it is easy to think of a narrower generalization that would still work as a reason in support of (2), it would be unfair (perhaps a straw man fallacy) to criticize (2) by pointing to a counterexamples against (G1).

    A narrower generalization could be used in support of premise (2):

    (G2) Anyone who makes a claim, when the claim is false, and when he/she knows the claim to be false, is a liar.

    This generalization adds the element of knowingly making a false claim, so (G2) is more plausible than (G1), and is not subject to some of the counterexamples that can be used against (G1). Because (G2) is plausible, and certainly is more plausible than (G1), it would not be a Straw Man to attack (G2) as part of a critique of premise (2). However, (G2) is not the only generalization that might be used to support (2), so even if (G2) was refuted by use of solid counterexamples, this would not show (2) to be false.

    Here is an even narrower generalization that could be used in support of (2):

    (G3) Anyone who makes a claim, when the claim is false, and when he/she knows the claim to be false, for the purpose of deceiving someone into believing that claim, is a liar.

    Now, premise (2) does not specifically mention the purpose of deceiving someone, but McDowell (or some other proponent of the Trilemma argument) might argue that deception is by far the most likely purpose for making such a claim, especially in this particular context (Jesus being a first century charismatic Jewish preacher). Thus, although (2) does not specify the purpose of deception, it might be thought that such a purpose would be far more likely than other purposes, making (2) probably true on the basis of (G3), though not necessarily true.

    The above generalizations can be narrowed further by reference to the content of the claim in question:

    (G4) Anyone who claims to be God, when he/she is not God, is a liar.

    (G5) Anyone who claims to be God, when he/she is not God, and when he/she knows that he/she is not God, is a liar.

    (G6) Anyone who claims to be God, when he/she is not God, and when he/she knows that he/she is not God, and when his/her purpose is to deceive someone into believing that he/she is God, is a liar.

    These narrower generalizations might not be subject to the same counterexamples as their corresponding broader generalizations.

    Since the concept of “God” is problematic and somewhat unclear, these generalizations can be narrowed further by a clarification of what is meant by claiming to be God:

    (G7) Anyone who claims to literally be the God of Western theism, when he/she is not literally the God of Western theism, is a liar.

    (G8) Anyone who claims to literally be the God of Western theism, when he/she is not literally the God of Western theism, and when he/she knows that he/she is not literally the God of Western theism, is a liar.

    (G9) Anyone who claims to literally be the God of Western theism, when he/she is not literally the God of Western theism, and when he/she knows that he/she is not literally the God of Western theism, and when his/her purpose is to deceive someone into believing that he/she is literally the God of Western theism, is a liar.

    Again, these generalizations are not subject to some of the counterexamples that work against the less qualified generalizations.

    In conclusion, when one gives a counterexample to a generalization as part of a critique or objection to premise (2), one must keep in mind that (a) refuting the generalization does not refute premise (2), and that (b) it may be difficult or challenging to determine the intended (or the most plausible generalization) that is supporting premise (2). The same sort of caution applies to criticism of premise (3).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11444305270383816724 El Profe

    Very, very interesting. And thanks for the free lesson on logical weaponry. :)

    I understand why you claim that the trilemma is a strong argument for the divinity of Jesus, in that “logically”, it is a closed hermetic construction (almost?) impossible to take down if we accept his premises.

    Of course, his premises are based on literalist interpretations of the gospels, which no one among us can take seriously. So, my question is: who is McDowell trying to convince with the trilemma? What sort of debate is the trilemma influencing?

    It seems that, in order to accept his argument, whoever interacts with McDowell has to accept, somewhat uncritically, that the gospels are literal and historical accounts of the life of Jesus (and, as you said elsewhere, particularly the gospel of John). So who would believe in the Bible buy deny the divinity of Jesus? My knowledge of Christian sects and groups is very limited.

    Perhaps he is just trying to reassure fellow Christians?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13512893992219685596 yottzumm

    It says in John 10:34-36 and Psalms 82:6, "I said 'You are gods'"? Who is "I" in this case? Aren't we all gods? Aren't we all insane? Aren't we all liars? It's all three, not just one choice. Put yourself (not Jesus) on the horns of the trilemma and stay put!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Yottzumm said…

    Aren't we all gods? Aren't we all insane? Aren't we all liars? It's all three, not just one choice.
    ================
    Response:

    I'm not omniscient, and clearly neither are you. So, NO you are not God, nor am I God.

    Also, I'm not omnipotent, nor are you. Are you perfectly good? Have you existed for all eternity. I don't think so. You are not God, nor am I God.

    Am I insane? I don't think so. I can at least recognize that I am a being with limited knowledge, limited power, of finite longevity, and am something less than perfectly good. If you believe the absurd idea that you have unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, and are perfectly good, then you might well be insane.

    I agree that we have all told lies, but calling someone a 'liar' as a moral condemnation generally implies something more than that a person has knowingly made one false statement. This would be a trivial claim that is true of every person.

    To call someone a 'liar' suggests that the person has either told many significant lies, or at least one very big lie. Claiming to be God, when one knows that one is not God, and when one's audience consists of devout religious folk who might take one's claim seriously, would count as a very big lie in my book, because you would be deceiving someone about a matter that is very important, at least from the point of view of the person who is being deceived.


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