left biblioblography: THE TROUBLE WITH TRILEMMAS…

Sunday, December 17, 2006


…IS that they’re usually a three-pronged pitchfork.

A trilemma is defined as “a choice between three options, each of which is unacceptable or undesirable. Two of the most commonly referenced trilemmas are those relating to Christian apologetics and international economic policy.
There are two logically equivalent ways in which to express a trilemma: it can be expressed as a choice between three undesirable options, one of which must be chosen, or as a choice between three desirable options, only two of which are possible at the same time.
The term derives from the much older term dilemma, a choice between two unacceptable options.”

This is about as close as we’ll ever get to a multiple-choice answer in the question of religious belief.

“The most famous trilemma – often referred to simply as "the trilemma" – is a form of apologetics meant to prove that Jesus is God, or at least to prove that he couldn't have been simply a "good teacher." Often summarized either as "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord", or as "Mad, Bad, or God", it assumes that Jesus claimed to be the God, and as a result one of three things must be true:
Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was.
Liar: Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.
Lord: Jesus is God.
Christian apologist C. S. Lewis originally proposed the argument in his book Mere Christianity. He contends that there are three probable alternatives, all or any of which, or some variant, may logically be chosen over the choice of calling Jesus a "great human teacher". Lewis's trilemma is therefore a straightforward question on the basis of the Biblical view of Jesus: it compels a choice of any option except the logically excluded alternative that Jesus was "a great human teacher" (and from among the remaining alternatives, he argues that Jesus is God). Lewis does not propose the argument as a proof of the deity of Christ, but attempts to portray as foolish those who dismiss Jesus as merely a moral teacher. However, he was ultimately persuaded that the choice of Jesus as Lord is no less probable than the alternatives, and far more preferable.
C.S. Lewis dwells more on Jesus's claim to forgive sins, behaving as if he really was "the person chiefly offended in all offences." (Mere Christianity, Simon & Schuster. p. 55.)”

And, as par for the course, the debate rages on…

“Over a hundred contemporary secular scholars contributing to the Jesus Seminar concluded that Jesus never claimed to be God [1], thus rejecting the premise on which the trilemma is based. There also exist counter-arguments[2] disputing the possibility that Jesus' reported claim to divinity was either fabricated or misinterpreted by early Christians. Skeptics have offered numerous alternatives to the trilemma. For example, Jesus may have been a fictional character (either wholly, as someone invented to portray moral principles, or partly, based on a real person but exaggerated); his words may have been misquoted or misinterpreted; he may have been honestly mistaken about his nature; or he may have suffered some mild delusions without being completely insane. In his book "The Case For Christ", former investigative journalist Lee Strobel offers answers to several of these objections. Apologists argue that there is reliable evidence that Jesus really existed and made claims to forgive sins and send prophets, which in the Jewish monotheistic culture would be taken as claims of Godhood.”

Didja get that? Reliable evidence? Temporal lobe epilepsy, is more like it. We have far more proof that Tiberius, Cicero, Augustus, and hell, even Apollonius of Tyana existed, than the crucified lamb ever did.

In economics, the phrase is used of the ‘impossible trinity’ – we should co-opt that, I think.

But here’s a trilemma I’m going to start using: the Munchhausen-Trilemma (AKA ‘Agrippa’s Trilemma’).

“It is the name of a logical proof in the theory of knowledge going back to the German philosopher Hans Albert. The term is ironically named after Baron Munchhausen, who allegedly pulled himself out of the quagmire by seizing himself at the shock of his hair. This proof runs as follows: All of the only three ("tri"-lemma) possible attempts to get a certain justification must fail:
  1. All justifications in pursuit of certain knowledge have also to justify the means of their justification and doing so they have to justify anew the means of their justification. Therefore there can be no end. We are faced with the hopeless situation of 'infinite regression'.

  2. One can stop at self-evidence or common sense or fundamental principles or speaking 'ex cathedra' or at any other evidence, but in doing so the intention to install certain justification is abandoned.

  3. The third horn of the trilemma is the application of a circular and therefore invalid argument.”
This should be fun. Put this one in your back pocket, and drop a reference to it in any blogversation with a theist. Especially when the old negative proof fallacy rears its malformed head (you know the sophistry I’m talking about: that “You can’t prove gawd DOESN’T exist”). Then watch the little dears run around in circles like beheaded poultry, getting terribly, terribly confused.

And to top it off:

“In Albert's view the impossibility to prove any certain truth is not in itself a certain truth. After all, you need to assume some basic rules of logical inference in order to derive his result, and in doing so must either abandon the pursuit of "certain" justification, as above, or attempt to justify these rules, etc. He suggests that it has to be taken as true as long as nobody has come forward with a truth, which is scrupulously justified as a certain truth. Several philosophers defied Albert's challenge. Until now he refuted them all in his long addendum to his Treatise on Critical Reason (see below) and later articles (see publication list).”

Yippee skippy, more fun with theists.

Till the next post, then.

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beepbeepitsme said...

Whenever I hear the term "christian apologist" it always seems to me to be a phrase which expresses exactly their intention.

That is, to apologise or to make excuses for contradictions or inconsistencies which may take people away from "the faith".

I know it isn't intended to have this definition inference, but for the life of me, I can't hear it any other way.

Krystalline Apostate said...

I know it isn't intended to have this definition inference, but for the life of me, I can't hear it any other way.
That's exactly what I get outta the phrase myself.
Excuses, excuses. ;)