Further Thoughts on Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has replied to my brief response to his challenge to “Jesus is God” apologists. In this follow-up post I’ll clarify the thrust of my earlier response and add some further thoughts.

Dale’s original challenge presented an argument, with premises he thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus “is not a god.”

I offered a parallel argument as a means of indicating where I think Dale’s challenge goes awry. Dale seems to think that I was arguing along these lines: Michael Rea’s view of material constitution is correct, therefore premise 4 in the parallel argument is false, and hence premise 4 in Dale’s original argument is false. To be fair, I can understand why he might have interpreted my response that way, but that wasn’t quite my point.

As it happens, I don’t endorse Rea’s position on material constitution. I think it’s plausible and defensible, but I recognize that there are some serious arguments against it. I have an open mind on the issue, because it’s a difficult one to resolve. There are competing metaphysics of material objects, each with its own virtues, and it’s a tough debate to adjudicate. And that’s my point — or at least part of it.

Material objects raise metaphysical puzzles which are challenging to resolve. For that reason, a claim like premise 4 (in my Lump/Athena argument) isn’t self-evident or beyond reasonable doubt. It could be reasonable to affirm it, deny it, or withhold judgment, depending on one’s epistemic situation and one’s other commitments. My contention is that premise 4 in Dale’s original argument is no less open to question.

To put the matter bluntly: metaphysics can be a tricky business, and we should hardly expect divine metaphysics to be an exception. If anything, we should be even more cautious when it comes to claims about what must be the case for divine beings — or rather, for the divine Being.

Dale asserts that “no Christian can get away with denying” premise 1 in his argument, whereas premise 1 in my parallel argument is “plenty deniable”. Ironically, I think his comments here lend support to my critique. Dale says, “I’ve never seen fit to allow things like lumps of clay into my metaphysics; I just deny that there are such things.” Fair enough — but other philosophers see things differently. The metaphysics of material objects is a matter of debate among “equally brilliant metaphysicians” (to use Dale’s phrase). Some of them think premise 1 is more disputable than premise 4; others take the opposite view. Metaphysics can be a tricky business! (That’s why it should only be practiced by licensed professionals with the proper tools and adequate insurance coverage.)

In an update to his response, Dale observes that I didn’t explain why doubts about premise 4 in my parallel argument translate to doubts about premise 4 in his original argument. I had assumed it would be fairly obvious, but here’s the reasoning. Both premises are instances of a more general principle:

(SAME) For any x and y, x and y are the same F only if x and y are not two (i.e. are numerically identical).

The justification for both premises seems to derive from SAME. So if premise 4 in my parallel argument is false, then SAME is false (or must at least admit of exceptions), and the ground for premise 4 in Dale’s original argument is called into question. Now perhaps Dale thinks that premise 4 in his argument stands on its own two feet, so to speak. It’s just self-evidently true. If that’s what he thinks, then that’s precisely what I’m challenging. I don’t think our warrant for his premise 4 is nearly as strong as he wants and needs it to be. Even if it’s prima facie plausible, it’s still defeasible. For one thing, the puzzles surrounding other instances of SAME (such as material constitution) should give us pause when it comes to allegedly self-evident claims about the metaphysics of divine substance.

Dale suspects, rightly, that a longer answer from me “will say something about  mysteries (i.e. reasonably believed merely apparent contradictions).” He has read and critically reviewed my book on theological paradox, so he knows my take on these matters. The short version is this: I think the metaphysical relationship between God (i.e., the one divine substance) and each person of the Trinity is a mysterious one, beyond our ken, and consequently it gives rise to paradoxes in our theological formulations which, to be blunt, we just have to learn to live with. As I suggested in my book, the relationship between God and each person of the Trinity isn’t exactly numerical identity, but from our vantage point it may be conceptually indistinguishable from numerical identity. It’s analogous to Rea’s “numerical sameness without identity” in the sense that each divine person can be logically distinguished from the Godhead (and from the other two persons) yet each is numerically the same God. If you tell me you have trouble conceptualizing that, my immediate response is: “No kidding. Are you surprised?”

So my take on Dale’s original argument is that either his premise 4 is false or there’s a concealed equivocation in the argument which we’re not in a position, epistemically speaking, to identify and articulate.

There are several reasons, I think, why Dale and I draw opposite conclusions. One difference between us is that Dale has greater confidence in the power of unaided natural reason to disclose truths about God. He’s more optimistic about the capabilities of our cognitive faculties, and the precision of our conceptual apparatus, when it comes to making inferences about divine metaphysics. A closely related point is that Dale apparently puts more stock in conceivability as a guide to possibility (or rather, inconceivability as a guide to impossibility). We’re both modal and metaphysical realists, but he’s willing to place greater weight on his modal and metaphysical intuitions. A further significant difference, which accounts in large measure for our divergent assessments of his original argument, is that I consider the biblical witness to the deity of Christ (i.e., that the Son is divine in the same sense that the Father is divine) to be far more clear and compelling than he does. We can revisit the exegetical arguments, but I’m not sure what it would take for me to persuade Dale to change his mind or vice versa. Whatever the case, appealing to supposedly self-evident metaphysical principles to shortcut the debate isn’t going to fly.

One last point to wrap things up. At the end of his post, Dale asks whether, given my response to his challenge, I accept this proposition:

Either Jesus is not a god, or some material objects constitute other material objects.

In a word, no: I don’t think my response commits me to that disjunctive proposition. Obviously I deny the first disjunct, since I affirm the deity of Christ, and I’m unsure about the second. Dale’s question is premised on the assumption that I endorse Rea’s position on material constitution, but as I clarified above, my response doesn’t require that.

Dale poses that question because he thinks my response implies that the deity of Christ is logically dependent on a disputable metaphysical theory (or perhaps that rational belief in the deity of Christ is dependent on rational belief in a disputable metaphysical theory). That would put the believer, he objects, “at the mercy of metaphysicians.” (What a terrifying prospect!)

Honestly, I consider this a red herring. The rationality of belief in the deity of Christ doesn’t hang on the rationality of belief in a theory of material constitution. That was never my point or an implication of my response. Rather, my point was that the problem of material constitution can give us some insights into the vulnerabilities of Dale’s original argument. In reality, whether or not a person’s belief in the deity of Christ is rationally justified will depend on many different factors, including that person’s general epistemic situation. There are at least three cases to consider:

  1. The case of the believer who’s blissfully unaware of Tuggy’s challenge. He doesn’t have an actual defeater for his belief in the deity of Christ because he doesn’t even have a potential defeater.
  2. The case of the believer who’s aware of Tuggy’s challenge (or something similar) and sufficiently understands it, but isn’t able to explain why it fails. As I’ve argued elsewhere, such a believer may still be rational in retaining his belief in the deity of Christ. Based on his assessment of what the New Testament teaches about the Son’s relationship to the Father, and basic convictions about divine incomprehensibility, he could reasonably conclude that Tuggy’s argument is unsound even if he can’t specify why it’s unsound.
  3. The case of the more philosophically sophisticated believer who responds to Tuggy’s challenge in much the way that I’ve done.

In none of these cases does the rationality of belief in the deity of Christ hang on a controverted metaphysical theory.

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