Friday, November 14, 2008

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 2

On page 104 of Evidence that Demands a Verdict (revised edition - hereafter EDV), McDowell presents a tree diagram of the various logical possibilities concerning Jesus. At the very top of the tree is the following statement:


Two branches come down from that statement to two other statements below it:

Claims were FALSE.................Claims were TRUE

The diagram indicates that it is true that Jesus claims to be God, and the diagram indicates that if this assumption is true, then there are only two logical possibilities: either the claims were false or the claims were true.

The first thing I notice is the use of the present tense in the basic assumption "Jesus claims to be God". This is an odd way to speak of a person who died 2,000 years ago. One expects the use of past tense verbs in this circumstance: "Jesus claimed to be God." I suppose that this is just a subtle expression McDowell's Christian viewpoint: Jesus rose from the dead and possesses an eternal body and eternal life. McDowell prefers to speak of Jesus in the present tense.

Since we ordinary mortals have no reliable way of determining what the claims of a supernatural heavenly Jesus might be. We only have access, in terms of ordinary knowledge and sensory perception, to the words of the historical Jesus. Any assumptions about what Jesus "claims" about himself must be based on evidence concerning the words and actions of the historical Jesus. So, it is more proper to speak of what Jesus claimed (past tense) about himself:

Q1. Is it true that Jesus claimed to be God?

McDowell himself uses the less-biased language of past tense to state the basic assumption of his Trilemma:

(see the chapter outline on p. 103 of EDV).

Jesus claimed to be God.
(the first sentence of section 2A, on p. 104 of EDV)

A second point that I notice about the tree diagram, is that in the statement of the basic assumption ("JESUS CLAIMS TO BE GOD") the word "claims" is a verb (present tense), but in the statement of the two basic logical alternatives (that are supposed to be derived from that assumption), the word "claims" is a noun (plural). So McDowell moves from talking about the activity of claiming to the categorization of entities called "claims". This seems a bit unclear, and could hide an ambiguity or logical error in McDowell's reasoning. I will discuss this point in greater depth later.

A third initial observation is that it is odd for McDowell to speak of "claims" in the sense of a plural noun. The basic assumption of the Trilemma is concerned with just one claim attributed to Jesus: his (alleged) claim to be God. So, I would have expected the logical alternatives to be stated in terms of a single claim:

The claim was FALSE.................The claim was TRUE

In refering to mulitple "claims", McDowell casts doubt on the comprehensiveness of his proposed logical alternatives:

Claims were FALSE.................Claims were TRUE
If we are dealing with multiple claims, then there is also the possibility that some of the claims were true and some were false, which would be a third possibility in addition to the possibility that all of the claims were false and the possibility that all of the claims were true. The possibility of a third alternative would invalidate the logic of McDowell's argument.
(Q1) appears to be a question about what Jesus said or did not say to other people during his life (his earthly life, since to talk about what Jesus said after his earthly life was over is to assume that there is life after death). If Jesus had said to some of his followers, "I am God.", then one might reasonably conclude that Jesus claimed to be God.

Before I go into the historical question about what the historical Jesus said or claimed about himself, I will try to clarify the meaning and logic of this first part of McDowell's Trilemma argument. The first question of clarification concerns the initial assumption of the argument:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.

Q2. What does statement (1) mean?

Scenario 1:
  • Suppose that the historical Jesus did say "I am God."
  • Suppose that Charles Manson has also said, "I am God."
Have Jesus and Charlie made the same claim? While it might be tempting to say that Jesus and Charlie have made the same claim, and this might be an acceptable use of the word "claim", this would be a misleading thing to say. If we are doing careful interpretation and criticism of an argument, then we should distinguish between uttering a declarative sentence, and asserting a proposition, and the word "claim" should be used only to mean the latter.

The personal pronoun "I" has a different reference when Jesus utters the sentence "I am God." than when Charles Manson utters the sentence "I am God." Thus, although they would have uttered the same declarative sentence, they are asserting different propositions:

3. Jesus of Nazareth is God.
4. Charles Manson is God.

Jesus was asserting proposition (3), while Charlie was asserting proposition (4), and these are different propositions. So, to characterize this situation accurately, we should say that Jesus and Charlie are uttering the same sentence, but are making different claims.

The reverse is possible as well. Two different declarative sentences can be used to assert the same proposition or claim.

Scenario 2
  • On a Monday (about two thousand years ago), Jesus said to Peter, "I am God."
  • A few weeks later, Peter, in a sermon to a crowd said, "Jesus is God."

In this situation, Jesus and Peter have uttered two different declarative sentences, but they have both asserted the same proposition or claim:

3. Jesus of Nazareth is God.

So, we see that two or more declarative sentences, can be used to assert a single proposition, and a single declarative sentence can be used to assert two or more propositions.

I think it is also worth noting that a declarative sentence can be used to assert a proposition and the very same sentence can also be used in a way that does not involve asserting any proposition.

Scenario 3

  • Charles Manson appears before his parol board and says, "I command that you release me from prison this very day. You must obey my commands, because you are mere mortals. I am God, your God."
  • Billy Graham, while engaged in personal Bible study, reads a passage from Psalm 50 aloud to himself:

Hear, O my people, and I will speak,

O, Israel, I will testify against you.

I am God, your God. (Pslams 50:7)

In this scenario, Charlie and Billy both utter the same declarative sentence: "I am God, your God." But Charlie is clearly asserting a proposition, Billy might not be asserting anything. Charlie is asserting the following proposition:

4. Charles Manson is God.

Obviously, Billy Graham is not asserting this proposition. But if Billy is reading the Bible verse out loud simply to focus his mind and to try to get clearer about the meaning or significance of this verse, then Billy might not be asserting any proposition at all. If Billy quotes this verse as a part of a sermon, then he might well be asserting a proposition, but since he is by himself and speaking to no one but himself, he may have no intention of making a claim in this instance.

To be continued...