XFiles Friday: Simplicity or consistency

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)

One of the tricks that trinitarians use to try and mask the flaws in their theology is to claim that the doctrine is so mind-bogglingly complex that we shouldn’t even try to understand it, let alone reconcile it with itself. As Geisler and Turek were saying about the Trinity last week,

It may be beyond reason, but it’s not against reason.

That doesn’t mean the Trinity can be completely understood. After all, no finite being can completely comprehend an infinite God. But we can apprehend the Trinity just like we apprehend but do not completely comprehend the ocean. When we’re standing on the beach, we can apprehend that there’s an ocean in front of us, even though we  can’t completely comprehend its vast magnitude.

Some Muslims charge that the Trinity is too complex. But who said that truth must always be simple?

I personally have not heard any Muslim arguments alleging that the Trinity is too complex to understand, but Geisler and Turek certainly are trying to make that allegation. And it’s false. The problems with the Trinity are not due to complexity, but due to the fact that the doctrine makes several simple statements that are supposedly all true even though they plainly contradict one another.

Remember, we’re not dealing here with a God Who can be approached and observed in the real world the way you can approach and observe a real ocean. The contradictions and inconsistencies of the Trinity are not anomalies that can be observed outside the words and thoughts of men. What we are dealing with here is not a God whose verifiable characteristics puzzle us. We are dealing with men saying things about God, in His absence, that don’t add up.

Now, let’s pause for a minute to ask ourselves: if someone were to lie to us about God, how would we go about discovering the falsehood? Would we not test the words of men against real-world truth, and against each other, to see if they demonstrated the same flawless self-consistency that defines genuine real-world truth? If we were going to oppose these teachers, and accuse them of preaching false doctrines, would we not base our claim on some contradiction between what the teachers said and what we held as being genuine truth? Even if we were believers, and were going to denounce them based on some supposed contradiction of the Bible, wouldn’t we be arguing that the contradiction is what proves their teaching to be false?

We’re not saying that truth must always be simple. What we’re saying is that truth is always self-consistent. It does not contradict itself. When we hear men making claims about God, in God’s absence, the only way we have to determine whether those claims are true or not is to examine whether those claims contradict each other and/or the real-world truth.

Thus, it’s not really a question of whether finite minds can comprehend an infinite amount of knowledge about God. The question is, when we look at the part we can comprehend, considering that it is the words of men and not an actual observation of an actual God, do we find the perfect self-consistency that is required for truthfulness, or do we find a mish-mosh of inconsistencies and self-contradictions, such as must necessarily result when telling falsehoods?

There is a certain simplicity in genuine truth: because it is already perfectly consistent with itself, there’s no need for us to invent complicated rationalizations to try and account for all the conflicts and contradictions that arise whenever you try to assert a falsehood as though it were really true. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the truth is easier because there’s less to remember. But this is a relative simplicity: the actual truth can be fairly complex, as we find when studying biology, for example. Even a complex truth, however, is going to be simpler than the kind of lies you have to tell to contradict it (as many creationists have discovered to their chagrin).

Geisler and Turek give us a fairly good example of this principle in action. Genuine truth is relatively less complex than trying to make the corresponding lie sound more truthful, but watch C. S. Lewis (quoted by G&T) try to convince us that the problems with Trinitarianism are actually a sign that the doctrine must be correct:

If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with persons who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.

Lewis is dead wrong: you can’t invent a lie that is more consistent with real-world truth than the truth is. You can tell a lie that fools people. You can ignore or gloss over the inconsistencies that inevitably result when you pass off a falsehood as the truth. But acknowledged or not, addressed or not, the lie raises issues and contradictions that genuine truth does not suffer from, so you can never make a lie that addresses all the relevant issues and still ends up being simpler than the truth.

And, by the way, Christians can and do try to make the Trinity simpler: G&T started off their chapter with a nice, homey “three who’s and one what” that was an attempt to do exactly that, as was their triangle analogy. There’s no shortage of Christian approaches to making the Trinity simpler. But again, the problem is not lack of simplicity, it’s lack of self-consistency. The simple ideas expressed by the Trinity are ideas that contradict one another, and one thing you can never do, when you’re making up a lie, is to invent enough complex rationalizations to solve all of the lie’s inconsistencies with genuine truth. Thus, Lewis fails to rationalize away the problems with Trinitarian doctrine.

Geisler and Turek next turn to historical revisionism to try and justify the Trinity.

Some critics and cult leaders have suggested that the Trinity is a later invention of the church. But this simply isn’t true. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all referred to as God in the Scriptures.

The doctrine of the Trinity was hammered out, via  long, political process, in a series of church councils convened by the Roman Emperor and various church leaders, in order to try and resolve some of the long-standing contradictions that had been causing controversy and division (and even violence) among Christians since the first century. It is exceedingly disingenous, if not outright deceitful, for Geisler and Turek to equate the centuries-old existence of the problem with an equally-old existence of the Trinitarian response.

Obviously, if Trinitarian doctrine were the answer to these problems, then the problems themselves would not have arisen in the church in the first place, assuming the doctrine dated back as far as the New Testament writings. Nor would there been such a lengthy and difficult debate centuries later, had the answer already been 300 years old by the time the first councils were convened. The conflicting polytheistic and monotheistic streams in Christian thought do indeed date back to the first century, but that does not mean the Trinitarian answer to that problem was any less a product of the third century (and later) councils. Geisler and Turek are simply lying in order to hide the purely human (and non-apostolic) origins of Trinitarian dogma.

By far the longest paragraph in G&T’s attempt to answer objections to the Trinity is a rather feeble attempt to make the Trinity sound like it actually gives us some genuine insights into spiritual mysteries. I’ll spare you the long quotation, but the gist of it is that the Trinity explains how I John 4:16 can say that God is love. You can’t have love unless you have someone to be the object of your love, therefore God needed someone else to exist prior to creation so that He could have someone to love. Apparently Geisler and Turek are unfamiliar with the concept of loving oneself, as well as being a bit weak on the distinction between being something and doing something.

And that about wraps up Chapter 13. Not to be superstitious, but I have to admit that one was pretty unlucky for our two erstwhile apologists. Next week, having used the Bible to “prove” that Jesus must be God (!), they’re going to turn around, without any self-consciousness, and use Jesus, as reported in the Bible, to prove the reliability and authority of the Bible. Here’s an excerpt:

My high school science teacher once told me that much of Genesis is false. But since my high school science teacher did not prove he was God by rising from the dead, I’m going to believe Jesus instead.

—Andy Stanley

Stay tuned…

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 11 Comments »

11 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Simplicity or consistency”

  1. MLee Says:

    Excellent commentary,
    Thank you!

  2. Swimmy Says:

    The excerpt from Lewis is downright hysterical if you know anything about evidence at all. If complexity or nonsensicalness is evidence favoring a religion, then we should weight more ridiculous religions as more plausible than Christianity. Imagine a world in which the opposite of Occam’s Razor is true. That’s the world Lewis wants you to think we live in. Is such a world even coherent, philosophically? Is it ever even possible that the most complicated answer is more likely to be the correct one?

  3. EdW Says:

    I was just thinking about something. If God is capable of being both 100% man and 100% God, whereas to say “Jesus is 100% man” and “Jesus is 100% God” are not contradictory, then why should God be considered “100% good” only? By their own logic, God could be “100% good” and “100% evil”. Surely the actions of God in the Bible support this view even more than the Trinity. The Bible could be written by Satan himself, and be 100% false, but that would not contradict the statement that God wrote it and is 100% true.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Exactly. Once we abandon the idea that truth is consistent with itself (does not contradict itself), then the very concept of “truth” loses all meaning, and virtually anything is as good as “true”. Trinitarians really can’t be sure that God won’t send believers to burn in Hell for all eternity while rewarding skeptics with eternal bliss in heaven. Sure, it contradicts what the Bible says, but maybe that’s just one more “spiritual mystery.”

  5. David Evans Says:

    Swimmy: sometimes the more complicated answer is the correct one. The periodic table of 100+ elements is more complicated than the classical set of (earth, air, fire, water).

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    But it’s simpler than trying to make the classical set work for everything that the periodic table tells us about chemical properties. ;)

  7. EdW Says:

    And yet, the periodic table is made up of only THREE types of fundamental particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons. Even simpler than the classical set.

  8. David Evans Says:

    Deacon: that’s true. And I would be the first to admit that there is no equivalent experimental data for which the Trinity is a best fit! But I do think Lewis had a point: the simplest model is not always correct.

    EdW: THREE types? That’s so last century? My feeling about string theory is that we are very far from knowing the real fundamental particles/entities. If we need 11 dimensions to describe them (or however many it turns out to be) it would be hard to persuade Aristotle that that’s a real improvement in simplicity.

  9. Deacon Duncan Says:

    If you changed that to “apparent simplicity is not always correct,” then I might agree that it’s a valid point. I think Lewis’s point, however, was that you could come up with a simpler doctrine of God by lying, and therefore Trinitarian doctrine is not lying, because it’s not simple. It’s really an invitation to indulge in some very shallow and fallacious reasoning, any way you look at it.

  10. Swimmy Says:

    Maybe I’m misinterpreting Lewis. It seems to me he’s saying something like this:

    The simplest theory does not necessarily fit the facts. When you are willing to do away with facts, you can easily have the simplest theory. We don’t have the simplest theory, so that must mean we have the most facts. When judging between religions, you should take the complexity of the doctrine of the Trinity as evidence in favor of Christianity.

    The first two sentences are correct and the last two are not. Even though it’s true that the simplest theory is not always right, complexity (from a Bayesian standpoint, which is where I’m coming from) can NEVER be direct evidence for a theory in and of itself. If it could, then I could easily create a religion more complex than Christianity, and say “If we wanted to be simple we could, but we’re dealing with facts.” Lewis’ logic would demand that you raise your probability estimates of that religion being true, because complex interpretations signal factuality.

    Complexity (in the formal sense) must always lower the plausibility of a theory, a priori, if only by a small amount. Since simple theories can be wrong and complex theories can be right, this means we should only use complexity as a tie-breaker when we’re judging between two theories that equally well fit the facts. Until we get to that point, we use the facts to exclude as many theories as we can. To look at complexity as a signal of facts is bad logic.

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Sounds good to me, with the caveat that ignoring the facts is not consistent with claiming to present a factual explanation of supposedly factual phenomena. Lewis is actually contradicting himself when he suggests that someone could come up with an that was both simpler and a viable theory while ignoring the facts. Creationism is a good case in point: all they achieve by ignoring the facts is a failure to genuinely explain anything.