If an argument is unsound, then the claims it makes do not “follow” even though its premises are true.
For example, if I argue, “If pigs cannot fly, then I am the fastest runner on Earth,” the truth value of “I am the fastest” does not emerge “for free” even if pigs are indeed unable to fly.
I’m going to talk about an unsound argument today. The first written evidence we have of this argument is from St. Augustine of Hippo, the most significant (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) early theologian of his time (the late 4th and early 5th centuries).
Augustine and Endless Hell
In his Enchiridion, Augustine wrote much about his views of hell. Augustine was a proponent of the doctrine of endless hell, as are most Christians today. (It wouldn’t be very reckless to posit that Augustine was the person most evidently responsible for the ubiquity of belief in the doctrine, as well as the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.)
In Augustine’s day, however, there were a bunch of Christians who didn’t believe in endless hell. These were genuine Christians who were purgatorialists, in the vein of St. Gregory of Nyssa, which means they believed fully in hell — an agonizing, humiliating, to-be-avoided destination — but that it was a remedial punishment.
(One of three major views in the ancient Church, alongside annihilationism and “endless hell.”)
St. Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” 4th century:
“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.
His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.”
… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”
St. Augustine admitted, in Enchiridion, that there were a great many Christians in his day who were purgatorial universalists like St. Gregory was. He also admitted that they weren’t in outright defiance in Scripture, but opined that their position was driven by soft-hearted “human feelings.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why would God blanket-punishment all of the unsaved regardless of their individual infractions?”
Augustine’s answer was that there were a variety of intensities of hell, and that certain folks might get what amounted to “lunch breaks” in hell; “Let them suppose… that for certain intervals in time, the punishments of the damned are somewhat mitigated.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why, then, do we pray for the dead, that they might escape a measure of their punishment?” Augustine had some creative eschatology here, and it worked like this:
- Imagine that if you have a “score” of +1 to +10, you’ll be saved.
- If you have a score of -10 to 0, you’ll go to hell forever.
- In life, you merit a score “window” on the bad-good scale like, “-9 to -6,” or “-2 to +2,” or “+7 to +10.”
- Prayers, sacrifices, alms, etc. for the dead could push a person higher in their window.
- If your window wrapped around the midpoint, prayers could potentially push you up into salvation.
- The higher you are, the better off you are, since “hell for -10 people” would be worse than “hell for -1 people.”
“Where they are of value,” Augustine wrote, “their benefit consists either in obtaining a full forgiveness or, at least, in making damnation more tolerable.”
Already, you can probably see how these answers aren’t very satisfying. In my experience, and I think the honest experience even of believers in endless hell, most “creative” formulations of how endless hell might address the difficulties it poses are, indeed, unsatisfying.
Isn’t God, Ultimately, Merciful?
The purgatorial universalist then says, “But Scripture says that he has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32); he deliberately subjected creation to frustration in the hope of redemption and as part of a creative process (Romans 8:20-22).”
Augustine’s response is that the Bible’s references to God’s ultimate, winning mercy must only be in reference to the few who will be saved from punishment.
This “must” is presented as contingent on the soundness of the following argument, again from his Enchiridion:
“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into eternal punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into eternal life.'”
Purgatorial universalists do not translate Heb. olam or Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “eternal” or “everlasting.” Rather, these words mean “age-pertaining,” often with overtones of significant gravity or broad domain.
This determination proceeds from the variety of olams in the Bible that do not refer to everlasting things, and from the fact that many of these olams are brought across, in the Greek Septuagint, as aion/aionios/aionion.
A few examples:
Isaiah 63:11 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “His people of Moses of the old [Heb. olam] days, he remembered.”
- From Septuagint: “And he remembered days of old [Gr. aionion]; the bringing up from the land the shepherd of the sheep.”
Genesis 6:4 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “In those days in the earth were Nephilim, renowned men of old [Heb. olam], mighty men.”
- From Septuagint: “Those were giants, ones from the eon [Gr. aionos], renowned men.”
Isaiah 42:14 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “I have been still for a length [Heb. olam], held my peace.”
- From Septuagint: “I kept silent from the eon [Gr. aionos], shall I also continually keep silent and endure?”
Here’s the unfortunate reality: Because belief in endless hell is nearly universal among Christians, and has been so for 15 centuries, tertiary translations of the Bible feel no impetus to keep their olams and aions vague; when it comes to the kolasin aionion, they nearly all read, “everlasting punishment.”
But not all translations do this. For example, the literal translations of Young and Weymouth are careful to temper themselves on the issue.
Compare Matthew 25:46 from the NIV, from Young’s Literal, and from Weymouth’s Literal:
- (NIV) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
- (Young’s Literal) “And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.”
- (Weymouth’s Literal) “And these shall go away into the Punishment of the Ages, but the righteous into the Life of the Ages.”
At this point, even staunch believers in endless hell generally admit that the “everlasting” or “eternal” translation is a bit reckless. But they are quick to invoke Augustine’s above argument.
So, without begging the aion question, is Augustine’s argument sound? Does this same-sentence comparison show us that the kolasin and zoen must be of equal time duration?
Can’t Beg That Question? Can’t Reach That Conclusion.
Imagine that “aionion” meant “intense,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
- “Then they will go away to intense punishment, but the righteous to intense life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both intense. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “astounding,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to astounding punishment, but the righteous to astounding life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both astounding. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “divine,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to divine punishment, but the righteous to divine life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both divine. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Now let’s use “aionion” how it ought to be prudently rendered: “age-pertaining.”
“Then they will go away to punishment of the ages, but the righteous to life of the ages.”
Should a person argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We should say, “This verse says they are both pertaining to ages; it may simply mean that they will both last a long time (finite in one case, infinite in the other). Or maybe it has nothing to do with duration, and simply means that both will take place at the consummation of the ages, the age to come after the general resurrection. Or perhaps it refers to the aionios zoe of the Kingdom of God, the age under which its subjects finally come to know the Father and his Son (John 17:3) and where the self-righteous hold-outs are excluded (Matthew 21:31-32). In any case, it does not suggest that they are of equal time duration.”
Put Very Simply
Here’s a very simple way to understand what’s going on here.
- (1) Given: X has the property A, and Y has the property A.
- (2) Given: X has the property B as well.
- (3) Question: Does that mean that A = B?
- (4) Question: Does that mean Y has the property B?
The answer to both questions is, “No way!”
“Y has the property B” if and only if we have “A = B” as a given.
Thus, Augustine’s argument is unsound, as are unsound all modern repetitions of his argument.
“I Believe the Bible over Xs, Ys, As, & Bs”
Okay. Here’s proof, straight from the Bible, that “forever-ness” does not “pop out” of olam parallelism.
- “He stood and surveyed the earth; he beheld and drove the nations asunder; the everlasting (adah) mountains were scattered, the olam hills bowed low; His ways are olam!”
Keep reading that verse, noble Augustine, until the unsoundness of the argument is ascertained.
(For another exercise that demonstrates this unsoundness, see “The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics.”)
Let’s learn the Mountain Game! It’s the hottest board game around.
The Mountain Game board looks like this:
Its rules are as follows:
- You begin at [START HERE]. This is the “start.”
- You advance upward, one space at a time.
- You must follow all given instructions on visited spaces.
- If you modify the board — or break the rules, or change the rules — of the Mountain Game, including by means of whatever creative semantic or temporal trickery, you lose. That is, there is a “modal spy helicopter” that “sees” any attempt to change the game and declares “This now a different game” upon “seeing” that modification.
A Mountain Game is any challenge defined by the fact that it cannot be met. If someone claims they have won a Mountain Game, you know for 100% certain that they are lying, no matter how powerful they are or what freedom they claim to have.
In pure consequentialism, an act is morally right if it produces results that represent an optimization of what is valued (whatever that is).
All statements of “should” or “ought” are built from two inputs:
- “What is valued?,” i.e., “What is the goal, interest, or desire (or set thereof) to which I’m acting in service?” and
- “For each prospective course of action, what will happen as a result?”
So we have our circles (input values or goals) and our squares (how things work). These always resolve into rounded rectangles (moral statements under consequentialism, e.g., “It is right to do X,” “I should do X,” “X is justified,” “X is correct,” “X is praiseworthy,” “Y is wrong,” “Y is suboptimal,” etc.).
Our Problem: We Are Numbskulls
The thing is, our squares are ill-defined. We may never have perfect squares because observations about the mechanics of the world, in general and in specific instances, may never be completely accurate.
And because the world is chaotic (that is, rather orderly, but nonetheless incalculably complicated), our faculties of foresight are dramatically limited.
We can’t even predict the weather accurately more than 3 days out. How much more terrible are we at predicting the effects of our actions on human behavior, including our own behavior?
We not only recognize that we don’t know that much about how the world works, but we simultaneously recognize that this ignorance leads to unintended consequences all the time.
We respect this intuitively, and we account for it in our decisionmaking.
Our Solution: Humility and Recognition of Uncertainty
Just as businesses account for risk in their decisionmaking, we individuals make intuitive attempts at accounting for risk. We recognize that our squares are severely crippled, and so many of our “shoulds” are loaded with qualifiers like “probably” and “maybe.”
For this reason, we say that pure consequentialism is impractical. We adopt some diluted form of consequentialism that recognizes our imperfect understanding of the world and the dramatic impact that imperfection has on our ability to predict the full consequences of our actions.
This includes even moral templates that allow for rules; it allows us to say that blanket, imperfect social laws may sometimes and in some places be required to correct for subjective error and individual stupidity.
So even as consequentialists, we reject pure consequentialism on the grounds that we are dummies. We humble ourselves below the status of omniscient beings because we know we aren’t.
See this post for an introduction to this concept, called “The Angelic Ladder.” We are “Near-Proles”; we are not completely stupid and blind to consequences, but we are pretty stupid, and pretty blind to consequences.
Loaded Moral Dilemmas
So, here’s the trick that many thought experiments pull:
- They set up a situation that tests your decisionmaking in a consequential context.
- They then give you some measure of implausible omniscience, e.g., “You know for absolute certain that pushing the fat man in front of the train will derail it, and that the train is certainly empty, and that the derailed train will not hurt the group of people you’re trying to save.”
- They then watch as you squirm with the anxiety of being an “omniscient prole,” where you’re struggling to reconcile your learned, intuitive, hammered-in humility with the new God-power you’ve been granted by the situation.
The thought experiment wants you to think that it’s demonstrating that consequentialism is an incomplete description of morality and needs additional deontological (“morality is all about rules”) magic. But all it’s actually doing is showing that we are intuitively averse to pure consequentialism because we know we’re so limited.
In other words, morality isn’t some same-level hybrid of consequentialism and deontology. That’s something a lot of people think and something with which a lot of people struggle.
Rather, morality is consequential, but due to our limited faculties of foresight and understanding, we find it useful to employ bits of subordinate deontology.
I’ll again link you to the previous post on the subject, “The Angelic Ladder,” which serves as a primer to “rules under consequentialism.”
Dealing with Loadedness
If someone asks you, “Are you a piece of garbage, or do you just smell like one?,” how should you respond? No, don’t punch them in the face. Rather, choose one of the following options:
- Indict the loadedness. “That’s a loaded question so I refuse to respond.”
- Unload the question. “I am neither a piece of garbage, nor do I smell like one.”
Similarly, if someone gives you a moral dilemma loaded with implausible omniscience, either are fine:
- Indict the loadedness. “That situation gives me implausible omniscience which ungrounds us completely, so I’m not going to respond as if my answer would reveal anything morally significant.”
- Unload the situation. “I wouldn’t fathom that the man’s body would be able to derail the train, would worry that the train would contain passengers I’d put at risk, and would be concerned that a derailed train might hurt the very group I’d like to save. Sorry. Real situations are addled with uncertainty.”
(It so happens that if we’re dealing with a moral situation with low uncertainty and non-competing interests, then the more grounded that moral dilemma is, the easier it is to answer confidently.)
Let’s say you’re playing poker. Five Card Draw, specifically. You ship some cards and get some back, and end up with a measly pair of deuces.
This isn’t looking so hot. You’ve been bluffing a great hand this round, and don’t have the goods to back it up.
“Oh, we forgot to tell you,” says your friend Harriet, “Bernice is dealer and — while you were in the kitchen — called this round as deuces wild.”
What? Deuces wild? Just as you’re about to complain that the whole round was contaminated, you suddenly realize that with deuces wild, you have a royal flush!
The Utility of Wildcards
Wildcards are extremely useful. They can turn weak hands into kingmakers. They can turn low pairs into royal flushes.
Their power is that they don’t mean anything discrete and coherent unless and until they’re integrated into a final, optimal hand resolution. At that moment, they mutate and solidify into whatever the player pleases.
There is an analogous object, with analogous utility, in logic and rhetoric. Any claim that has no discrete and articulable truth value can qualify, and there are many ways that a claim can be “amorphous” in this manner.
- A claim may be many-faced. “My car is pleasing.” Well, what does that mean? Jake could call his car pleasing, when it doesn’t even work, but looks nice in his driveway. Vera could call her car pleasing, when it looks like junk, but performs great on the road.
- A claim may be nonsensical. “My house is a thing against which there house is no house my house isn’t my house in transcendence, cannot it being.” The preceding sentence probably invokes various images in your mind’s eye, but it does not cohere, and thus can’t have a truth value.
- A claim may be otherwise vague, unclear, ambiguous, or wide open to interpretation.
- A claim may have a hidden referent. The many-faced example above is also a good example here. If the referent is explicated (what pleases Jake versus what pleases Vera), it can cohere. But as long as the question is without its necessary referent, it lacks a truth value. Subjective claims that are mistakenly put into objective language are very often guilty of this referent-lacking problem.
If any of these problems are present and yet are undetected, and treated like coherent and solid claims with discernible truth values, they can mutate and solidify around whatever the hand-holder desires.
Cheryl is late to my party, and I’m worried that she might be lost. In a misguided effort to comfort me, Brent claims the following:
- “Cheryl is flawless at finding a house if she knows its address.
- Thus, Cheryl is not lost.”
Of course, at this point, I think, “But what if she doesn’t know my address?” Brent suspects I might be thinking this, but doesn’t himself know whether she has my address or not. So he tells me something deliberately vague:
- “Cheryl has quasi-panomic knowledge.”
What does that even mean? Further inquiry yields only more such strange statements from Brent, each more unclear than the last, but all in supposed service of clarifying that odd term.
He hopes that I will eventually give up and accept his statement as a bridge. This happens when the images conjured by what he’s saying — a sense of “knowledge” and “full,” at least — come to a rest at some inferred coherent place, like, “She has my address.”
But I refuse to quit, and shout, “Brent! Does she have my address or not?”
“I’m trying to tell you the answer to that!” he says, “You see…” and then continues with the ambiguity.
Now, instead of coming to rest at something vaguely conjured, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise in service of any conclusion.”
Soon, Brent appears to be drunk. “How many drinks have you had, Brent?” I say.
“Eight,” he says.
“In an hour??” I say.
“Yeah,” he answers.
“You’re drunk,” I proclaim.
“No I’m not! I’ve got a just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” he says.
“A ‘just-firm and nigh-set constitution?'” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he responds. “It means that eight drinks in an hour does NOT mean that I’m drunk. Such a thing would be unthinkable.”
I press him for a more dissected meaning of “just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” in order to determine whether he “has that,” whatever it is, but only ambiguity and dangling references (like circular references) come forth.
How on Earth can I determine whether he has the thing that invalidates my conclusion when the thing’s definition is “that which invalidates your conclusion” and nothing more?
Now, instead of coming to rest at the vaguely-conjured image of someone exceptionally tough who can hold a lot of alcohol without issue, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise that would stop the accepted premises — how many drinks you’ve had in this period of time — from yielding the conclusion that you’re drunk.”
These examples are rather silly, but in the abstract and confusing worlds of philosophy and theology, Brents abound.
And they’re incentivized to proliferate! Wildcard-loaded hands are “better.” And confusion, “subjective-as-objective,” and ambiguity all yield exciting conversations in fruitless attempts to reach cohesion.
This is especially the case in theology, where it is accepted and acknowledged that various revelatory statements are mysterious and beyond our comprehension. The error comes when those mysteries are treated as non-mysteries for the purposes of bridge-making and bridge-breaking.
As believers, we hold to revealed mysteries faithfully. But we should regard them with enough humble reverence not to treat them like pilons or sledgehammers.
In the meantime, if someone employs some strange term as a premise and refuses to articulate it in a coherent way, treat that term like it’s toxic glowing green and reject their logic until they take a break and figure out what they’re trying to say.
This video, called “The Difficult Ds we Get for Free,” talks about how formal logic gets us “free truth” as corollaries of benign premises, but how the “dirty tricks” of ambiguity can be used as logical wildcards.