Elaborating upon point (b) in my original post, I noted that:
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Fulford on sola scriptura, Part II
Let’s return to Andrew Fulford’s reply at The Calvinist International to my recent post on Feyerabend, empiricism, and sola scriptura. Recall that the early Jesuit critique of sola scriptura cited by Feyerabend maintains that (a) scripture alone can never tell you what counts as scripture, (b) scripture alone cannot tell you how to interpret scripture, and (c) scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, etc. In an earlier post I addressed Fulford’s reply to point (a). Let’s now consider his attempt to rebut the other two points.
Elaborating upon point (b) in my original post, I noted that:
If you say that scriptural passage A is to be interpreted in light of scriptural passage B, then how do you know you’ve gotten B itself right? And why not say instead that B should be interpreted in light of A? Inevitably you’re going to have to go beyond scripture in order to settle such questions.
In response to this, Fulford says:
The problem with this overall objection… is that it overlooks the fact that texts are intrinsically meaningful, and that people are capable of perceiving the intending [sic] meaning of others when they communicate… [T]here is no special problem with the interpretation of scripture that does not arise for the interpretation of any human communication, including the ex cathedra pronouncements of a putatively infallible Pope. If reason can understand the words of such a Pope, there is no reason in principle it could not understand scriptural passage A or B. There may be particular problems as a result of historical ignorance, but these can be resolved in principle the same way any issue of interpretation for any human text is resolved… [I]nterpreting texts in their natural [historical] context, the rule that “scripture interprets scripture” is entirely reasonable: the books of scripture are the products of authors writing closest in time and culture to other books of scripture.
End quote. Now, the trouble with Fulford’s remarks here is that they ignore the crucial differences between texts on the one hand and the persons who write and interpret texts on the other -- thereby missing the entire point of the critique of sola scriptura. Start with the fact that texts are quite obviously not “intrinsically meaningful,” contrary to what Fulford says. Texts are made up of linguistic symbols, and linguistic symbols are human artifacts. That the shapes you see on your computer screen as you read this count as linguistic symbols at all is a result of the conventions of English usage. That they convey the specific meaning they do in this blog post is a result of those conventions together with my intentions in writing the blog post. Apart from those conventions and intentions, the shapes would be meaningless, mere patterns of light on a screen or (if you printed this post out) patterns of ink on paper. The linguistic symbols that make up scripture are, of course, like that too. They bear the meanings they do because of linguistic convention together with the intentions of the authors.
Fulford would no doubt agree with that much. He would also evidently insist that we have evidence of a historical sort concerning the conventions and intentions in question, and he is right about that. Just as someone who knows English and has read a number of other things I’ve written is going to be able to understand much of what I have to say in any particular blog post, so too is anyone familiar with the relevant languages and historical background going to be able to understand much of what he reads in scripture, and in any other historical document for that matter. No one denies that. Certainly, critics of sola scriptura are not denying that you can to a considerable extent understand scripture just by virtue of knowing the languages in which it is written, something of the historical and cultural contexts of the events it describes, etc. They aren’t claiming that without an authoritative institutional Church, scripture would be as unintelligible as (say) Esperanto is to most people. So, pointing out, as Fulford does, that “context,” “time and culture,” and the like can clarify the meaning of scriptural passages is not really to the point.
What is to the point is that there is, nevertheless, necessarily going to be a degree of indeterminacy in the meaning of any text, considered just by itself, even given knowledge of linguistic conventions, historical context, etc. This is in the very nature of texts. I will explain why this is a problem in principle in a moment, but first let’s notice how great a problem it can be in practice even in the case of an author whose writings are numerous, well-known, and have been the object of scholarly study for centuries. Consider, to take just one example, that the correct interpretation of Aristotle’s views on the nature of the intellect and the possibility of personal immortality is notoriously controversial and has been for centuries. Can it be shown on Aristotelian philosophical grounds that the individual human soul survives death? I certainly think so. But that question is very different from the question of whether Aristotle himself took that view. Appealing to Aristotle’s writings on the subject cannot by itself settle this exegetical question, because how to interpret those writings is precisely what is at issue. In particular, reading Aristotle passage A in light of Aristotle passage B won’t solve the problem, because which passages should determine how the others get read is part of what is in dispute. Interpreting all of the relevant passages in light of the larger body of Aristotle’s writings, historical and cultural context, etc. hasn’t settled things either. And the one certain method of determining what Aristotle himself thought -- asking him -- isn’t possible because he’s dead. Examples of this sort of problem could be multiplied by citing other well-known authors of the past.
Now, does scripture raise exegetical issues which appeal to scripture by itself cannot settle? The existence of myriad Protestant denominations and sects which agree on sola scriptura but nevertheless somehow disagree deeply on many matters of biblical interpretation is, I submit, pretty good evidence that it does.
Yet might not sufficient good will, along with sufficient knowledge of a linguistic and historical sort, at least in principle solve the problem? No, they would not. The reasons should be obvious to anyone familiar with the various indeterminacy arguments which James Ross once rightly characterized as “among the jewels of analytic philosophy,” and which I have discussed many times (e.g. here, here, and here). The problem is that material symbols and systems of symbols -- and texts are collections of such symbols -- are, no matter how complex the system in question, inherently indeterminate in their meaning. There are always in principle various alternative ways to interpret them, alternatives which the symbols themselves cannot adjudicate between. This (as I and other writers have emphasized) is the deep reason why computationalist and other materialist accounts of thought cannot possibly be right. Thought can be determinate or unambiguous in its content in a way material symbols and systems of symbols cannot possibly be. But the system of symbols that makes up a text is no different in this regard from a purported system of symbols encoded in the brain. By itself it can never be as determinate as the thoughts of the author of the text.
Notice that the claim is not that “anything goes.” It is not that a text might plausibly be given just any old interpretation. There may be any number of proposed interpretations which are ruled out. The point is that the text cannot by itself rule out all alternative interpretations. Notice also that the claim is not that texts are indeterminate full stop. The claim is that a text all by itself cannot rule out all the alternatives. Appeal to something outside the text is necessary.
Nor do we need exotic scenarios like Kripke’s “quus” example in order to make the point (though such examples are certainly relevant). Consider instead the critique of the symbolic processing approach in artificial intelligence developed by philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle. The approach in question presupposes that intelligence can be embodied entirely in explicit representations and rules, such as the symbols processed by a Turing machine and the algorithms by which they are processed. And the problem with this is that the interpretation of representations and rules presupposes an intellect which does the interpreting, so that such representations and rules cannot coherently be taken to explain the existence and operation of the intellect.
Consider even a very simple set of rules, such as those commanding the following series of actions:
1. Walk from the back of the desk to the front.
2. Walk from the front of the desk to the back.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
Almost anybody following these rules will do so by walking around the desk, but there is nothing in the rules that really requires that. One could follow them instead by stepping up on the desk and walking across it. Now these two interpretations are incompatible, at least insofar as you can’t walk around the desk and across it at the same time -- though one could decide instead to walk around it at first, and then in later applications of the rules to walk across it. In any event, the rules themselves won’t tell you which of these three interpretations (walking around, walking across, or doing both but at different times) is the right one.
Suppose we tighten up the rules in order to clarify this. Suppose they instead read “Walk around the desk from the back…” etc. You might think that this now makes things completely unambiguous. And perhaps most people who follow these revised rules will proceed, in following them, to walk clockwise around the desk. But there is really nothing in even the revised rules that requires that. One could instead walk counterclockwise, or mix things up by walking clockwise sometimes and counterclockwise at other times. Again, nothing in the rules by themselves determines which of these procedures is correct.
Nor would revising the rules again in order to get around this problem eliminate all indeterminacy. Suppose we altered them to read “Walk clockwise around the desk from the back…” etc. Now everything would be clear and unambiguous, right? Not from the rules all by themselves. Should one move around the desk in a circular path? Or should one trace out an extremely wide oval path? Should one walk in a shuffling way? Do a zig zag? Are hopping and skipping allowed? When beginning one’s walk from the front to the back, should one first leave the room and then reenter before reaching the back? Further additions could be made to the rules to settle such questions, but however that is done, it will only leave us with a revised body of rules which will itself be susceptible of yet further possible alternative and incompatible interpretations.
Now, in real life what determines how rules get followed are people -- the people who make the rules and the people who follow them. You ask the person who made the rules: “Do you want me to do it this way or that way?,” or you just decide yourself to do it one way rather than the other. You may do so deliberately, or you may do so unconsciously, by virtue of certain habits you picked up in childhood or from the culture around you. (Both Dreyfus and Searle in their different ways emphasize the aspect of intelligence that is tacit or not fully brought to the level of conscious consideration.) Either way, it is the fact that people are intelligent that makes them capable of interpreting systems of rules and representations. Hence it gets things the wrong way around to try to explain intelligence in terms of rules and representations. It isn’t rules and representations that explain why intelligence exists; rather, it is intelligence that explains why rules and representations exist.
When people focus their attention on computers themselves and don’t dwell on how they got here, computers can seem self-contained. It can seem that it’s just an intrinsic or built-in fact about them that the symbols they process have such-and-such a meaning and that they are running such-and-such algorithms. The illusion develops that the computer is somehow doing what it’s doing all by itself, and that’s why it can seem a good model for understanding human intelligence. But this is an illusion. In reality, there is no fact of the matter, from the intrinsic physical facts about it alone, concerning what meaning the computer’s symbols have or what algorithms it is running. It is only because the machine’s designers constructed it a certain way, and its users use it a certain way, that its internal physical processes count as having the significance they do. The meaning of the symbols and the precise algorithms that it is running are determined by something outside the machine, and it is only by appeal to this external source of meaning that questions about the precise significance of the machine’s operations can in principle be settled. (Cf. my previous posts on Kripke’s and Popper’s and Searle’s critiques of computationalism.)
Texts are like computers in this respect. It is easy to focus one’s attention on the text itself so that the author, like the computer’s designers, disappears from view and the text can come to seem to have a meaning or significance all on its own, “built in” as it were. Hence Fulford’s casual remark that “texts are intrinsically meaningful.” But this is no less an illusion than is the computationalist illusion that there could be such a thing as a machine whose syntax and semantics are intrinsic to it rather than relative to the intentions of the designers and users of the machine. (Feyerabend compares sola scriptura to classical empiricism. He could just as well have compared it to the computationalist model of the mind.)
Now, for everyday purposes, it is of course not necessary to advert to the designers’ intentions when using a computer. You just use the computer and get along well enough. But when something goes wrong, or there is some ambiguity in how the machine is functioning (“Is it supposed to be doing this?”), the designers’ intentions alone can settle the matter. Similarly, when reading a text, for the most part we don’t need consciously to bring to mind the fact that the text has a specific author who had such-and-such intentions in writing. We just read the text, and for the most part we get along well enough. But when the text is unclear, or seems to be inconsistent in places, the author’s intentions come to the fore, and can alone settle the matter. And if the author is dead, the matter may well never be settled -- hence the problems in interpreting Aristotle’s De Anima.
Now, where scripture is concerned, both the Catholic and Protestant sides in the dispute over sola scriptura agree that it has a divine author, who is of course not dead. But both sides also agree that this divine author works through human instruments. What they disagree about is whether these human instruments are all dead. The sola scriptura position is, in effect, that they are all dead. For it holds that God reveals what we need to know for salvation via scripture alone, and the human authors of scripture are all dead. The Catholic position, by contrast, is that some of the human instruments in question are dead, but some are not. For it holds that God reveals what we need to know for salvation in part via scripture but also in part via an ongoing institutional Church which has divine guidance in interpreting scripture. And it holds that unless there were such living human instruments, we would be stuck in something like the position we’re stuck in vis-à-vis the interpretation of De Anima -- worse, in fact, since settling the question of how to interpret De Anima is not relevant to salvation, whereas settling the question of how to interpret scripture is relevant to salvation.
You might say, then, that the scenario described by the Catholic position is comparable to a situation in which Aristotle is still alive, and while he doesn’t answer questions about the proper interpretation of De Anima directly, nevertheless does answer them indirectly, by speaking through intermediaries. The sola scriptura position, by contrast, is comparable to a situation in which Aristotle is still alive, but neither answers questions about De Anima directly nor speaks through intermediaries. He just leaves you with the text of De Anima itself and lets its readers quarrel over its proper interpretation interminably. Worse, it’s like a situation in which Aristotle allowed this and also believed that getting De Anima wrong would lead to serious errors of a theological and moral sort.
Now, Fulford insinuates that interpreting “the ex cathedra pronouncements of a putatively infallible Pope” is no less problematic than interpreting scripture. But (with all due respect to Fulford) this is as silly as saying that in understanding De Anima, asking Aristotle himself what it means -- or rather, asking Aristotle’s representative, sent by Aristotle precisely for the purpose of answering questions about how to interpret De Anima -- is no better than just reading the text. It is as silly as saying that in trying to find out how some computer is supposed to function, asking the technicians who represent the company that manufactured the computer is no better than just examining the computer for yourself. Of course, what Aristotle or his representative might tell you, or what the computer technician might tell you, might itself have ambiguities of its own or raise further questions. But precisely because these are literal, living persons, you can literally ask them for further clarification if need be. You can’t literally ask a text or a computer anything.
Fulford also says:
[I]f verbal statements or written texts always require further interpretations external to themselves to be intelligible, we would need an infinite series of interpreters to understand any human speech, even that of infallible Popes.
This is like saying that since what the computer technician tells you might raise questions of its own, you need an infinite series of technicians, or that since what Aristotle’s representative tells you might be ambiguous, you need an infinite series of representatives. In fact, this doesn’t follow at all. All that follows is that you might have follow-up questions for the same, one technician, or the same one representative. Of course, the technician or representative in question might die, but as long as there is some new technician or representative to take his place, you can just ask for clarification from that one new technician or representative. Similarly, you don’t need an infinite series of interpreters to understand the statements of some pope. You just ask that one, particular pope for clarification, and if he dies you just ask the next particular pope.
Fulford’s mistake is that he thinks the issue has to do with how many texts there are. He says there’s one, and he thinks that what the Catholic critic of sola scriptura is saying is that there’s more than one. And his objection is that any problems that would arise with the one text would arise also with a larger set of texts. He’s right about that much. But he’s wrong on two counts. First, if the Catholic position really did differ from sola scriptura only in the number of texts it posits, that wouldn’t show that sola scriptura is right after all. Rather, it would show that the Catholic position and sola scriptura are both wrong, and for the same reasons. But second, the difference between sola scriptura and the Catholic position is not fundamentally about how many texts there are. Rather, the Catholic position is that it can’t all be just texts in the first place. Rather, we have to be able to get outside of texts, to persons who have the authority to tell us what the texts mean.
Let’s now turn briefly to point (c) of the Jesuit critique of sola scriptura cited by Feyerabend -- the idea that scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, etc. Fulford responds that:
[T]he objection relies on a misapprehension of what sola scriptura claims… [I]t never meant that scripture apart from the rational capacities of human beings was somehow to function as an authority in the church; Protestants recognized that individuals had to subjectively understand and appropriate the message of the Bible.
To see what is wrong with this response, consider the theological controversies that have arisen over the centuries concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, transubstantiation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Sunday observance, infant baptism, slavery, pacifism, the consistency of scripture with scientific claims, sola scriptura itself, and a host of other issues. Now, either scripture alone can settle these controversies or it cannot. If Fulford says that it cannot, then he will thereby make of sola scriptura a vacuous doctrine, since if it cannot answer such questions then it cannot tell us whether it is Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Christians, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, or some other group entirely who has got Christianity right.
Presumably he would not say this, though. Presumably he would say that scripture alone can settle such issues, and certainly most sola scriptura proponents have thought so, since they tend to regard the holding of certain specific positions on at least many of these issues as a requirement of Christian orthodoxy. But in that case Fulford will be saying something false, since scripture alone manifestly cannot settle these issues, for opposite positions on all of them have been defended on scriptural grounds.
Moreover, what even most Protestants regard as the orthodox view on some of these issues was hammered out on grounds that are philosophical, and not merely scriptural. For instance, it is not merely scripture, but scripture together with considerations about the nature of substance, persons, etc. that leads to the doctrine of the Trinity. Now, the sola scriptura-affirming Trinitarian might say that you simply cannot make sense of the entirety of what scripture tells us about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit unless you bring to bear such philosophical considerations. Hence anyone who wants to do justice to scripture had better be a Trinitarian. I think that is correct. But a sola scriptura-affirming anti-Trinitarian might respond that since these philosophical considerations are not themselves to be found in scripture, the Trinitarian doctrine that presupposes them cannot be binding on Christians or definitive of orthodoxy. Which of these “scripture alone” affirmers is right? Scripture alone cannot tell us.
Or consider disputes about how to reconcile scripture with the claims of science. Should we read Genesis in a way that requires us to conclude that the universe is only a few thousand years old? Or can it legitimately be read in a way consistent with the universe being billions of years old? Does scripture teach that the earth does not move, so that it conflicts with a heliocentric view of the solar system? Or should the relevant passages be read another way? Should we regard Adam as having been made directly from the dust of the ground, or is there wiggle room here to regard Adam’s body as having been made from it indirectly, God having used as raw material a pre-human ancestor whose own ancestors derived remotely from the dust of the ground? If Fulford were to say that scripture alone can settle these issues, he would be saying something manifestly false, since there is no passage of scripture that tells us which of the competing ways of reading the passages in question here is the correct one.
I imagine he would not say that, though. I imagine he would say instead that we have to look outside scripture itself in order to settle these matters. But to admit that is to give the game away. For an enormous amount rides on how these matters are settled. For one thing, whether scripture is in general reliable rides on how they are settled, and therefore everything else scripture teaches rides on it. For another thing, how we decide these matters will involve deciding upon general principles of scriptural interpretation, and those principles are bound to have repercussions for other doctrinal questions. But if it is consistent with sola scriptura to say that the general reliability of scripture, and general principles for interpreting scripture -- matters which in turn affect everything scripture teaches -- can legitimately come from outside scripture, then sola scriptura once again seems vacuous.
Then there is the fact that the problem for sola scriptura raised by point (c) is inseparable from the problem raised by point (b). For the sorts of conclusions we can draw from scripture obviously depend on how we interpret scripture. The problems with Fulford’s response to (b) thus inevitably leak over into any attempt to respond to (c).
So, I conclude that Fulford’s response to points (b) and (c), like his response to (a) considered in my previous post in this series, fails.
A final analogy: In the movie Memento, the protagonist Leonard Shelby loses the ability to form new memories after a blow to the head from an attacker who also raped and murdered Shelby’s wife. Shelby attempts to track down the killer, tattooing clues onto his body so that he won’t forget them, and writing himself notes and taking photographs to remind him of where he lives, what car he drives, who the people he comes into contact with are, and so forth. The trouble is that his inability to form new memories has also robbed him of the ability properly to understand the meanings of the tattoos, notes, and photos. Hence he misinterprets what he has written and draws mistaken conclusions from it. Shelby’s error is supposing that the tattoos, notes, and pictures by themselves will suffice to tell him what he needs to know. And they do tell him quite a bit. He is able to infer correctly that the man he is after has the first name “John” and a last name that begins with “G,” that the people in the photographs are people he knows and that the car he sees in one of them is one he has driven, and so forth. But he nevertheless gets other, crucial things badly wrong -- for example, he continually misinterprets exactly who “John G” is, does not realize that the car in question in fact belongs to someone else, has completely forgotten the true reason one of his notes identifies a certain “John G” as the killer, and so forth. Moreover, if Shelby thought about it, he would realize that he cannot even be sure that all of the notes and tattoos were really left by his earlier self in the first place. Maybe someone else wrote some of the notes, or had certain things tattooed on his body while he was drugged or held at gunpoint.
In short, Shelby is in a situation that mirrors each of the three problems with sola scriptura we’ve been discussing. All he’s got to go on are his notes and tattoos. But (a) the notes and tattoos by themselves cannot tell him which notes and tattoos are genuine or indeed whether any of them are, (b) the notes and tattoos themselves cannot tell him how properly to interpret the notes and tattoos, and (c) the notes and tattoos themselves cannot tell him how to derive implications from the notes and tattoos. And just as sola scriptura advocates disagree radically among themselves about what scripture teaches, so too does Shelby come, at different points in the movie, to radically different conclusions about what his notes and tattoos mean -- at one point thinking a certain person is “John G,” at other points thinking that some totally different person is “John G,” at one point thinking that a certain motel room is his while believing at another point that he occupies a different room, and so forth.
Alas, poor Shelby sees no alternative to his incoherent “sola notes and tattoos” position. But the Christian does have an alternative to sola scriptura, or so we Catholics maintain.