Dialogue with an Atheist Concerning Analogical Arguments

Dialogue with an Atheist Concerning Analogical Arguments November 10, 2015


Image by “geralt” [public domain / Pixabay]

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This took place in the combox for my post, 50 Bible Passages on Purgatory & Analogous Processes. “OverlappingMagisteria” took issue with my thesis in the piece, which was almost entirely of the nature of analogical argument (even denying that it’s a legitimate form of argument at all). With all due respect, I don’t think he succeeded. See what you think!

Analogical arguments are some of my very favorite to use (and unfortunately they are massively misunderstood). I’m a Catholic largely because of the brilliant analogical arguments used by Cardinal Newman in his 1845 classic, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. My dialogue parter’s words will be in blue.

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I was interested in hearing the biblical case for purgatory, but I am sorry to say that this is an extremely poor list that tries to shoe-horn purgatory into verses that are obviously talking about something entirely different. Take the following as an example:

The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) explicitly says that the rich man is in hell and that there is a gulf that does not allow passage between it and “Abraham’s Bosom.” How this is interpreted to purgatory, a waiting room on the way to heaven is beyond me.

Or take the partial quotation provided from 2 Peter 9… which if you read the full passage makes it clear that the author is talking about the cleansing of sins in this life, not in the hereafter.

Obviously, time does not allow me to go through the whole list of 50, but others were similar in nature. It does not seem to me that the author could be serious with this list.

You clearly have not understood the reasoning here. The whole point is one of analogy (a form of argument widely misunderstood in the first place).

You object that one passage had to do with “this life.” Yes, of course, since that was the purpose of the paper (!): to establish massive analogy.

I expressly explained all this in the introduction:

God often and does this sort of thing to men on earth, in His mercy (necessary for our sanctification); therefore, He can and will do the same thing after death . . .

What is repeatedly described and “sanctioned” in Holy Scripture is certainly not implausible as a continuing process after death. . . . Of particular note is the relationship between the biblical teaching of suffering in general and purgatory . . .

Luke 16, as I have explained many times through the years, is not about heaven and hell, but about Sheol / Hades, which had two compartments in it. It is analogous to purgatory in an imperfect way (no analogy is absolutely perfect): as a third state after death besides heaven or hell.

If you want more direct biblical indications of purgatory, I compiled those in a separate post, from my first book.

Thanks for the reply. As you say, the form of argument from analogy is often misunderstood. I think the reason is because it is not a particularly good type of argument. One can shoehorn just about anything into an analogy and then explain away the inconsistencies with “no analogy is absolutely perfect” as you did.

This life is not eternal, so could we say that, by analogy, neither is the next? This life has evil and injustice, so by analogy, so does the next? In this life we have physical bodies and also in the next? We could accept each of those if we were motivated to do so, or write them off as “imperfections” in the analogy.

I suppose I expected to see places where the Bible actually talks about purgatory, but instead got descriptions of this life, or Sheol, and the assumption that things will be similar in some ways (but disregard the ways which defeat the argument!) in the hereafter. Color me unconvinced.

Analogy is a great form of argument. The Bible massively uses it, in types and shadows and prototypes (John the Baptist was the new Elijah; Jesus was the son of David, etc.). The parables are based on analogies. Wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) also massively uses it.

For Christians (and Jews), who accept the inspiration of God’s revelation: the Bible, this is a major way that God sought to teach us. Thus, it is just as effective in looking for analogies to purgatory.

I think the argument is quite strong.

Again, direct proof was not the purpose of this argument. I gave you a link to my paper where I did that. Something tells me, however, that you’ll be singularly unimpressed with that as well.

“In this life we have physical bodies and also in the next?”

Yes, we do. That’s what is called the general resurrection. If we’re operating within a Christian / biblical paradigm, my argument makes perfect sense.

You appear to be an atheist or agnostic; in reading several of your comments. Is that true?

Analogy is perfectly fine as an illustrative teaching aid, but not as an argument. It’s one thing to say, for example, that you gotta be prepared for the kingdom of heaven, like ten virgins bringing lamps to meet a bridegroom. It’s quite another to do the reverse: to assume a passage must be talking about purgatory through analogy and then argue from there. If there had been a passage that said something like “Purgatory exists and its kind of like how God punishes people on earth,” then you’d have a case and that would be a good illustrative analogy.

That’s not an analogical argument at all. It would be a self-understood factual statement [within the biblical paradigm] that happened to include a [non-essential as to its factuality] analogy within itself.

But “God punishes people on earth, therefore there is purgatory,” doesn’t quite work as an argument. (Just like my examples on mortality, evil, and justice in the afterlife don’t work. You caught me on the physical bodies one!)

I’ll check out the article you posted when I get a chance. Thanks.

Once again, you have misunderstood how I construed my own argument. I stated it quite explicitly: “What is repeatedly described and “sanctioned” in Holy Scripture is certainly not implausible as a continuing process after death.”

Like all arguments from analogy, it is one of plausibility, not one of intended “absolute proof.” In fact, I think all the arguments for God are of the same nature.

I also think you are dead-wrong as to whether analogy is a proper argument or not. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy strongly disagrees with you. In its article,
“Analogy and Analogical Reasoning” it states:

. . . such arguments belong in the category of inductive reasoning, since their conclusions do not follow with certainty but are only supported with varying degrees of strength.

. . . Analogical reasoning is fundamental to human thought . . . Historically, analogical reasoning has played an important, but sometimes mysterious, role in a wide range of problem-solving contexts. The explicit use of analogical arguments, since antiquity, has been a distinctive feature of scientific, philosophical and legal reasoning.

I asked you if you were an atheist or agnostic.

[stony silence]

Since my question wasn’t answered, I had to waste 20 minutes of my time rummaging through OM’s comments (because I think it is only fair to know where a person is coming from, when one is dialoguing with them). As suspected, he’s an atheist:

As an atheist, what am I doing wrong?

Presumably, since I don’t believe in God, I have no reason to believe that humans have value. And yet I do. I must be a bad atheist.


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