Sunday, 29 May 2016

Can Science Answer Every Question?



In my last post I discussed our current mental environment which champions science above all other forms of human understanding. I noted that the most extreme version of this attitude is scientism; the view that science, alone, is the only valid source of human knowledge. Or, as the philosopher Alex Rosenberg puts it:

"... the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything . . . [that] Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about." 

A view which is also shared by many prominent scientists. A recent example of this can be found in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's popular book The Grand Design. In it they maintain that:

". . . philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientist have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." 

In this post I seek to show that science is well suited to answer a great number of questions . . . just not all questions. There are a number of questions--philosophical questions--the scientific method, in principle, can not answer. Thus, the proponent of scientism needlessly undercuts her ability to answer many questions of great importance. To make my point crystal clear, let's begin with an illustration.

Metal-Detectorism . . . It's So Hot Right Now


Consider this bit of fiction inspired by the philosopher Edward Feser. A group of metal-detecting enthusiasts in Blackpool conclude--after years of successfully discovering metal objects on the beach--that metal detectors, alone, are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects. Let's call their view, metal-detectorism.

Given metal-detectorism, the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector. We can formalize the argument ( call it A1) thus:

(1) If metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects, then the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector.
(2) Metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects (i.e., metal-detectorism).
(3) Therefore, the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector. 

Now, metal detectors are fantastic at detecting the presence of metal; in fact, they are designed specifically for that task. Suppose I asked the proponents of metal-detectorism the following question:

a. How many metal chairs are in Lufkin Coffee?

To answer this question reliably, we'd need to use a metal detector to locate and count the number of metal chairs. Fortunately, metal detectors are perfectly suited for this task! So far, so good . . . but what if I asked the proponents of metal-detectorism this follow up question:

b. How many wooden tables are in Lufkin Coffee?

Now we've got problems. A metal detector is not designed to detect wooden objects. How, then, is the proponent of metal-detectorism to respond? Well, there are at least four options: (1) They can dismiss question b as a pseudo-question, (2) they can determine that questions like b, which require us to locate non-metallic objects, can only be answered in the negative--e.g., "there are no wooden tables at Lmfkin Coffee", (3) they can provide a woefully inadequate answer--e.g., citing the number of metal tables in Lmfkin--or, (4) they can abandon metal-detectorism and use some other method to determine how many wooden tables are in the cafe.

At the end of the day, metal-detectorism severely, and irrationally, limits our ability to detect objects. It just doesn't follow that metal detectors are the only reliable instrument for detecting objects because they successfully locate metallic objects on the beach all the time! Consequently, adopting this position seems to have undercut our ability to adequately answer questions like b.

But, what does all this have to do with scientism? Well, everything.    

Scientism . . . Relentlessly Narrow-Minded  


Given scientism, we must accept that the only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method. Why? Because the only reliable source of knowledge is the scientific method. We can formalize this argument ( call it A2) thus:

(1) If science is the only reliable source of knowledge, then the only reliable answer to any     question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method.
(2) Science is the only reliable source of knowledge (i.e., scientism)
(3) Therefore, the only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method. 

Assuming, for the moment, this argument is sound, let's take a look at a set of questions. Call this set-S:

a. Why do objects fall to the ground when released from a great height?
b. What causes the moon to orbit the earth?
c. Why do woodpeckers have long beaks?
d. What atoms combine to create a water molecule?
e. How helpful are people to strangers on the subway? 

The questions in set-S are perfectly suited for the scientific method. The subject of each question (e.g., the moon or woodpeckers, or water molecules, etc) is open to empirical observation and testing; and any answer provided to the questions in set-S is open to empirical falsification. This means we can develop models to explain the given phenomena in each question and test our answers to see if they line up with our observations.

So far, so good . . but not all questions are equal. Consider the questions in set-P:

a. Do the laws of physics objectively exist, or are they merely constructs of the human mind?
b. What is a cause?
c. What is knowledge?
d. Does your personal identity persist through change over time?
e. How helpful ought people be to strangers on the subway?

There is no empirical test one can run to determine the nature of knowledge, or what the laws of physics are, or what a cause is, or whether or not the same individual person persists through change over time, or how someone ought to behave in any given circumstance. We can observe regularities like an apple falling from a tall building; we can not observe the 'laws of physics'. We can infer that the force of gravity causes the moon to orbit the earth and then test this theory with observation; but we can not empirically observe the abstract universal concept: 'cause'. We can observe that an individual undergoes constant change through time; but we can not observe the ontological ground of that person (that which remains unchanged and constitutes the persons essential identity). Neither can we use the scientific method to conclude that a persons personal identity does not persist through change over time. Finally, we can observe how people do in fact behave to strangers on a subway but not how they ought to behave. I can't observe and test a universal moral imperative.

Furthermore. to do science we must presuppose the answers to many of these questions. For example, we must presuppose we can obtain knowledge of the world, and must even assume some basic notion of what knowledge is. We must also presuppose that the world is basically ordered (i.e., behaves in a regular law-like manor), and that there are causes and effects. However, these ideas are not the subject of scientific verification or falsification; rather, they must be assumed in order for scientific investigation to get off the ground.

It would seem, then, there are some questions science, in principle, can not answer. Questions with answers that can not be verified or falsified by the scientific method. It is not that scientists just need more time to run tests; the problem is that the scientific method is not designed to handle questions like the one's in set-P. No matter how long scientists work on it, or how many tests they run, they will never find an adequate answer. Just as someone using only a metal detector will never detect the presence of wooden tables at a cafe.

Yet, the proponents of scientism may still insist science can and must be used to find answers to questions like those in set-P. When this happens the proponents of scientism (like those of metal-detectorism), typically respond in one of four ways: (1) They dismiss such questions out of hand, labeling them pseudo-questions, (2) they determine such questions can only be answered in the negative--e.g., "there is no way that people ought to behave to strangers on the subway (nihilism)", (3) they provide a woefully inadequate answer--e.g., cite what some sociological study says about how people treat strangers on a subway--or, (4) they unwittingly abandon scientism and answer the questions philosophically.

Ironically, option (4) is precisely what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow go for in their book The Grand Design. After lambasting philosophy and declaring its death (see the quote above) they go on to spend a significant chunk of their book attempting to answer question a in set-P--Do the laws of physics objectively exist, or are they merely constructs of the human mind?--philosophically. The sad thing is, they don't realize they are doing philosophy, and do not appear to be familiar with the vast body of philosophical literature on the subject. Hence, as many professional philosophers have pointed out, the Hawking/Mlodinow response to question a is riddled with problems.

Conclusion 


Scientism, like metal-detectorism, is needlessly, and irrationally, restrictive. Just as a metal detector is not designed to locate none metallic objects, the scientific method is not designed to answer philosophical questions (like those in set-P). No matter how long I search for wood, using only a metal detector, I will never find wood. Likewise, no matter how long I strive to answer questions like those in set-P using only the scientific method, I'll never find an adequate answer.

Having said all of this, one might object to what I've argued. It could be that premise (2) of A1--'Metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects-is false. In contrast, it could be that premise (2) of A2--'Science is the only reliable source of knowledge'--is true. In other words, metal-detectorsim may be a faulty position when it comes to locating physical objects; but scientism may be the correct stance in epistemology. Thus, whether we like it or not, the truth of scientism might just compel us to accept the conclusion of A2: The only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method.

I shall address this objection in my next post.





Saturday, 26 March 2016

A Brief Note on Scientism or, Thinking like Mr. Gradgrind, or Attack of Mr. Enlightenment

 


Perhaps nothing personifies our current mental environment better than Mr. Gradgrind--that ludicrously narrow minded headmaster invented by Mr. Charles Dickens in his book Hard Times. A man whose self introduction to strangers (at least, in his mind) went something like this:      

“Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, Sir--peremptorily Thomas--Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind--no, Sir!”

Whether we are conscious of it or not Western society has adopted this matter-of-fact outlook. Not all of us embrace it with the same level of gusto and passion as Mr. Gradgrind; nevertheless, our empiricist leanings are very strong. Don't get me wrong, the majority of us still take pleasure, and even experience a vague sense of "spiritual" significance, in reading a thought provoking novel, listening to music, watching an artfully directed film, saying our evening prayers, or reading the work of a great philosopher. But, when push comes to shove, the only pathway to knowledge we fully trust--the one we ultimately turn to for real answers--is science. In short, the scientific method has become the be all and end all for the vast majority of truth seekers in the West.

This attitude, which places science on the highest pedestal, above all other domains of human understanding, finds its strongest expression in the form of scientism. Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, and popular atheist writer, defines this approach to life as: 


“. . . the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything . . . [that] Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about."  

The most bombastic and influential contemporary critics of religion--the so called ‘New Atheists’--are not only outspoken proponents of scientism but believe it leads, unavoidably, to atheism. They have determined there is no place for 'God' in any scientific explanation of reality; for them, 'God' is a failed hypothesis. Ironically, the most succinct exposition of this position can be found in C. S. Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress. In it, there is a delightful exchange of dialogue between a young pilgrim named John and a traveler named Mr. Enlightenment:


“John was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again:
‘But how do you know there is no Landlord [i.e., God]?’
‘Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of the printing, gunpowder!’ exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said John.
‘Eh?’ Said Mr. Enlightenment.
‘I didn’t quite understand,’ said John.
‘Why, it’s as plain as a pikestaff,’ said the other. ‘Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training.”
All literary allusions aside, scientism has virtually become the default position among academics and even in popular culture. In the coming weeks I'll be taking a close look at scientism and the impact this peculiar epistemological stance has had in discussions about the existence of God. More specifically, I'll argue that scientism is a self-defeating position and that not every question can be answered by the scientific method.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Tale of Two Gods, or Allah Versus the Holy Trinity



First of all, this post is not about whether Muslims or Christians have a correct understanding of 'God'; or about which religion represents the fullness of the truth. Neither is it some sort of "clash of the titans" in which I pit one 'God' against another to see which one wins out. It is, rather, my attempt at bringing clarity to an ongoing debate among Christians. I am, of course, referring to the question of whether or not Christians and Muslims believe in the same 'God'. This topic recently caught the attention of several major news agencies when Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton, pronounced that Christians and Muslims do, in fact, worship the same 'God' and further declared her intention to wear a hijab.

I have no desire to enter into the debate over whether or not Wheaton is justified in suspending professor Hawkins. Nor do I care to make a comment on her choice to wear a traditional Muslim head covering. What I am interested in, however, is whether or not her assertion is correct: Do Muslims and Christians believe in the same 'God'?

I shall argue they do . . . and they don't.

What Do You Mean by 'God'?  


Before we can answer the question at hand, we must first define what we mean when we use the word 'God'. Broadly speaking, 'God' can be taken in two ways: (1) as referring to the divine nature in general, or (2) as referring to a specific deity (i.e., a particular manifestation of the divine nature) who has revealed him/her/itself in a particular time and place in history.

Considered in the first sense, the term 'God' refers to what Aristotle called the 'Unmoved Mover' or 'First Cause': a being that everything depends on for its existence and who can be, in the words of St. Paul: "understood and seen through the things he has made" (Romans 1:20). St. Maxamus the Confessor referred to this same divinity as that which has ontological priority:

“Everything that derives its existence from participation in some other reality presupposes the ontological priority of that other reality. Thus it is clear that the divine Cause of created beings - which derive their existence from participation in that Cause -- is incomparably superior to all such beings in every way, since by nature its existence is prior to theirs and they presuppose its ontological priority” (Maximus, 1990 p165).

In like manner, St. Augustine referred to 'God' as the 'ultimate ground of all being' or 'ultimate reality'. These great thinkers are representative of a much larger philosophical and theological tradition (which includes Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers) known as Classical Theism (CT).

Proponents of CT not only contend 'God' is the ultimate ground of being, and in fact the greatest of all conceivable beings, but also share a common view on the basic attributes or properties of 'God'. Traditionally, this includes the idea that 'God' is immutable, uncircumscribable, incorporeal, metaphysically simple, and unknowable (in terms of directly apprehending what he is). Furthermore, proponents of CT all share the common view that knowledge of the divine nature (in so far as we are capable) can be obtained through a posteriori reasoning and is accessible to anyone with an open mind.  

Considered in the second sense, however, 'God' refers to a specific deity. In other words, it points to a particular manifestation (or, alleged manifestation) of the divine nature who has revealed him/her/itself in a special way in history. Major examples of this would include Yahweh, who revealed Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, or Allah who revealed His will to the prophet Muhammad in a cave on Jabal an-Nour, and Jesus Christ who revealed the Trinitarian nature of God through His baptism in the Jordan river (Cf. Mark 1:9-11).

To be clear, I'm not claiming all of the divine revelations recorded in all of the world's religions are merely different manifestations of the same divine nature. That is, I'm not espousing some form of universalism. I am simply making a distinction between two common ways people--especially theologians and philosophers--use the term 'God': one way uses the term to refer to the divine nature (as it is conceived by CT) and the other way uses the term to refer to a specific, more personal, manifestation of the divine nature in history.

Muslims and Christians Believe in the Same God



Now that we've defined our terms, let's examine the proposition:

(a) Muslims and Christians believe in the same 'God'. 

If we interpret the word 'God' in proposition (a) in the first way--as referring more generally to the divine nature (i.e., the First Cause of all things, the ultimate ground of all being, which has ontological priority, and shares the list of divine attributes discussed above)--then, clearly (a) is true. For, on a whole, proponents of CT--be they Christian or Muslim--share the very same general conception of the divine nature. In which case, we can interpret (a) as:

(a)' Muslims and Christians believe in the same 'divine nature'. 

Likewise, if we interpret the word 'God' in proposition (a) the second way--as referring to a particular manifestation of the divine nature--we might also coherently affirm the truth of (a). For example, Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad is one (albeit, the ultimate one) in a long line of prophets Allah has revealed Himself to in history. Hence, they identify the 'God' who revealed Himself to Abraham and to Moses (whom Christians believe in) as being the very same 'God' who revealed Himself to Muhammad in the cave Hira. While they argue the Old Testament record of these divine revelations has been distorted, and that the fullness of the truth is only preserved in the Quran, they still identify Yahweh with Allah. In other words, they are making an 'is' of identity claim: 'Yahway' = 'Allah'.

Taken in this way, (a) could be interpreted as:

(a)* Muslims and Christians believe in the same manifestation of the divine nature (i.e., the same divine being who revealed Himself to Abraham and Moses).          


Muslims and Christians Do Not Believe in the Same God


Equally, however, we can argue (a) is false. For if we interpret 'God' in proposition (a) in the second way, but factor in the witness of the New Testament, we find there are certain features of God's nature Christ revealed that are antithetical to the nature of Allah as revealed in the Quran. Namely, Jesus revealed the Trinitarian nature of 'God' (Cf. Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 8;58).  Accordingly, Christians affirm 'God' is not one single hypostasis but tri-hypostatic: i.e., that the divinity exists as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Allah, on the other hand, is said to be one single hypostasis. The radical difference between these two alleged manifestations is significant. For, given what we've just said, proposition (a) would essentially mean:

(b) Muslims and Christians believe in one 'God' who exist's as three persons and in one 'God' who exists as one person. 

Clearly, however, this statement is false. Not only is it a contradiction, but both conjuncts are false: Muslims ardently affirm 'God' is a single person and Christians ardently deny 'God' is a single person.

Conclusion


As you can see, the question of whether or not Christians and Muslims believe in the same 'God' is rather tricky. If professor Hawkins intended to communicate the fact that, traditionally, Christians and Muslims have shared the same basic conception of the divine nature (as conceived by CT) then her assertion is correct. Furthermore, if her point is that Christians and Muslims both claim to believe in the 'God' of the Old Testament--the 'God' of Abraham and Moses--then she is also correct.

Anything more than this, however, would be problematic. Christians believe in the Trinitarian nature of 'God' as revealed by Jesus Christ (whom they believe to be the incarnate Word or Son of God). Furthermore, they identify the Holy Trinity with the 'God' who revealed Himself to Abraham, Moses, and all of the Old Testament saints. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation are arguably the most important doctrines of all the Christian doctrines.  Yet, Muslims, following the teaching of the Quran, adamantly deny these two doctrines; according to them, Allah is one single hypostasis.

Given this, we can hardly claim, with any amount of consistency, that Christians and Muslims truly believe in and worship the same 'God'.







  

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Coherence of Christmas PART 2



As Eastern Christians prepare for the nativity according to the flesh of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ the coherence of this most important celebration hangs in the balance.  Last week in PART 1 I outlined the problem of Christmas; arguing that the incarnation violates the law of non-contradiction and is, thus, incoherent.

In this post, however, I will show that the problem of Christmas . . . is no real problem at all. We shall begin our discussion by looking at the nature of paradoxes.


A Brief Note on the Nature of a Paradox 


A paradox is a statement that, on a surface level, seems to be a contradiction; but, upon closer investigation, turns out to be logically coherent. Here's an example:


(a) It is now 11:00 pm and not-11:00 pm.

On a surface level (a) is a contradiction because it conjoins a statement S and its denial not-S. However, upon deeper reflection, we realize that time is relative to the observer. For it is now (at the time of this writing) 11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales but not in Bandung Indonesia (where it is, in fact, 6:00 am). Thus, (a) could be read as:


(a)' It is now 11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales and not-11:00 pm in Bandung Indonesia.

If we interpret (a) as meaning (a)' then (a) is clearly not a contradiction but, simply, a paradox; and one that is quite easily explained. The only way (a) can be construed as a contradiction is if we interpret it as:


(a)* It is now 11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales and not-11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales. 

Another example of a paradoxical statement is:


(b) The torch instantiate's a chemical reaction and does not instantiate a chemical reaction.  

Admittedly (b) is a strange sentence; but, is it a logical contradiction? Again, on a surface level, the answer appears to be yes; as it apparently violates the law of non-contradiction. However, when we dig deeper we realize that, metaphysically speaking, a torch (here conceived as a stick set aflame; like out something from Lord of the Rings)  is a union of two distinct natures--that of flame and wood--joined together to form one hypostasis (i.e., individual, unique, subsisting, entity). Thus, (b) could be read as:


(b)' The torch instantiate's a chemical reaction, with respect to its flame, and does not instantiate a chemical reaction, with respect to its wood.   

Once again, like (a), (b) is not a contradiction; because it could, quite justifiably, be interpreted as (b)'. The only way that (b) can be said to be a contradiction is if we interpret it as:


(b)* The torch instantiates a chemical reaction, with respect to its flame, and does not instantiate a chemical reaction with respect to its flame. 

As should be clear by now, paradoxes strike us as being contradictions at first; but, ultimately, upon deeper reflection, turn out to be coherent statements that often correspond to reality. I submit the same can be said of the doctrine of the incarnation.


The Paradox of the Incarnation 


In PART 1 we said the doctrine of the incarnation, in affirming that Jesus is both fully God and fully man, asks us to accept the truth of obviously absurd statements like:




(c) Jesus is both created and not-created.

or,


(d) Jesus is both mortal and not-mortal.

We, ultimately, concluded the doctrine is incoherent and, therefore, metaphysically impossible. If, however, we take time to reflect a bit more on what the doctrine affirms and how it tells us to interpret statements like (c) and (d), we will find it is not a contradiction but, merely, a paradox. To see that this is true, let's examine an definitive formulation of the dogma.

There are many passages among the writings of the Church Father's we could turn to to find a clear and precise exposition of the doctrine of the incarnation. For our purposes, however, it seems fitting to return to the writings of St. John of Damascus, who responded to this very same objection in the 8th century.  In Book III of his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith he writes:


"And we confess one Person [i.e., hypostasis] of the Son of God incarnate in two natures that remain perfect, and we declare that the Person of His divinity and of His humanity is the same and confess that the two natures are preserved intact in Him after the union. We do not set each nature apart by itself, but hold them to be united to each other in one composite Person. For we say that the union is substantial; that is to say, true and not imaginary. We do not, however, define the substantial union as meaning that the two natures go to make up one compound nature, but as meaning that they are truly united to each other into one composite Person of the Son of God, each with its essential difference maintained intact" (p273-274). 
In short, the Person or hypostasis (i.e., individual, unique, subsisting, entity) known by the name of Jesus of Nazareth is comprised of two natures that perfectly maintain their distinct, essential properties. Hence, that which belongs to the nature of divinity (e.g., being uncreated, uncircumscribable, incorporeal, etc.) remains perfectly preserved in the Person of Jesus. Likewise, that which belongs to the nature of humanity (e.g., being created, circumscribable, corporeal, etc.) remains perfectly preserved in the Person of Jesus. Just as the nature of fire and the nature of wood remain perfectly preserved in the hypostasis known as a torch.

With this in mind, we can interpret sentences like (c) and (d), which appear to be contradictions, in the following way:



(c)' Jesus is both created, with respect to his human nature, and not-created, with respect to his divine nature.
(d)' Jesus is both mortal, with respect to his human nature, and immortal, with respect to his divine nature. 

Like the torch in the example above, we can coherently refer to the antithetical properties existing in the one hypostasis, Jesus, so long as we remember that we are referring to two distinct natures. Hence, just as it is common to say things of a torch like, "Bilbo lifted the torch to light up the cavern," with the understanding that it is not the wood lighting up the cavern but the flame, so it is common to say things of Jesus like, "Jesus wept," with the understanding that it is not his divine nature weeping but his humanity.


 Concluding Thoughts 


I've shown the doctrine of the incarnation is logically coherent; that it is a paradox and not a logical contradiction. This, at least, tells us Christmas is not a celebration of something completely absurd--like the advent of a square circle. However, it leaves the question of the reality of the incarnation completely untouched. It remains unclear, based on our present discussion, whether or not Jesus really is the Son of God who became flesh.  Furthermore, exactly how the divine nature was able to unite itself to a human nature (if, indeed, this happened) remains a total mystery. Nevertheless, those of us who look forward to celebrating the nativity of our Lord this Thursday may rest assured that we are not blatantly irrational.

References 

St. John of Damascus. Trans. John, and Chase, F. (1958). Writings. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. 
 

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Coherence of Christmas PART 1





Several days ago the majority of Christians in the West celebrated the most important event in the history of the Universe: the day that God came down from heaven, was born of the virgin Mary, and became man.

For many, however, this is a very difficult teaching. In fact, there is a serious prima facie case to be made that Christmas is a complete irrationality. It almost goes without saying that atheists, who doubt the very existence of God, find it impossible to accept; but, they are not the only skeptics. For, there are just as many theists who find the story of Christmas objectionable; arguing that the very idea of God becoming man is incoherent.

The question we shall endeavor to answer is this: Is the incarnation reasonable? By reasonable, in this context, I simply mean coherent or free from logical contradiction. The answer I shall defend in PART 2 is: yes, quite reasonable.

For now, however, let's take a closer look at the problem.

The Problem of Christmas 

Simply put, the problem of Christmas is that the doctrine of the incarnation is a logical contradiction and, thus, completely absurd. Let's unpack this inflammatory statement to see why.

The text book definition of a logical contradiction is as follows: the conjunction of a statement S and its denial not-S. To grasp what this means, here's a simple example:

     (a) Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit and not a Hobbit.

The reason (a) is a contradiction is because it violates what logicians call the law of non-contradiction--the rule that a statement and its denial cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect. In other words, this law asserts that it can't both be true that Bilbo is a Hobbit and also true that he is not a Hobbit. Claims like (a) are simply incoherent.

If (a) is incoherent it also follows that it is metaphysically impossible for a Hobbit/not-Hobbit to exist.

Likewise, says the problem of Christmas, the incarnation violates the law of non-contradiction by claiming Jesus is both God and man. The 8th century Greek theologian St. John of Damascus, who was well aware of this objection, summed up the issue as follows:

"... how can one nature comprise different substances that are contradictory? How is it possible for the same nature to be at once created and uncreated, mortal and immortal, circumscribed and uncircumscribed?" (p272).
 
In other words, the doctrine of the incarnation, in asserting that Jesus is both God and man, asks us to accept the truth of statements like:

     (b) Jesus is both created and not-created.

or,

     (c) Jesus is both mortal and not-mortal.

Like (a) these statements clearly violate the law of non-contradiction and are, consequentially, complete nonsense.

This, of course, creates a problem for Christmas; or, more precisely, for those who truly celebrate Christmas. For if statements like (b) and (c) are logically incoherent this counts as a defeater for the incarnation; because it entails the incarnation is a metaphysical impossibility. In other words, it means there is no possible world in which God could become man.

The problem of Christmas, thus, undermines the central tenet of the Christian faith . . . or does it? In PART 2 I'll respond to this objection and argue that the incarnation is both reasonable (i.e., logically coherent) and metaphysically possible.


References 

St. John of Damascus. Trans. John, and Chase, F. (1958). Writings. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.