Impossible or Inconceivable

This distinction came up recently, and it isn’t clear to me what exactly is the difference between these two statements. At the very least, I am having a difficult time determining if there is a material distinction between them, or if the contents of one are equivalent to the contents of the other. Clearly we can say that there may be some logical difference between the two, but does that justify maintaining such a distinction? If every case of impossibility is materially equivalent to every case of inconceivability, then what more is verifiably added to our knowledge of the object of our consideration by saying that it is impossible? It seems like we are creating distinctions without a difference, and adding nothing of substance to our discourse with it.

I don’t really have an answer to this question, and I really suspect it is going to come down to demonstrating a material distinction between the two classifications, although perhaps there is something that can be said of the distinction even if the two do thoroughly coincide. But for the moment, all I can tell of the difference between the two is that impossibility carries with it the claim of representing a universal frame of reference, whereas inconceivability, unless otherwise qualified, is limited to the frame of reference of the speakers intellectual capacity, an easier claim to demonstrate. In fact, it is this very reason that causes me to be suspicious of impossibility, in that I don’t know how I would verify such a claim since I do not have any way of verifying that I have access to a universal perspective. I really would like to discuss this with my professor, but am not sure I the opportunity will come up.

On the other hand, isn’t it true that p and ~p are in fact contradictory, and so impossible for both to be true? I suppose so, but it also seems rather trivial, in that this claim of universality seems equivalent to saying something like this:

In the game of baseball, a hit ball that travels outside of the foul line before passing third base is considered a foul ball, and this is true of every possible world.

This is true, but it tells us nothing other than that this is a rule of baseball. Of course if you insist that these rules be kept, then it will universally be true that a ball that crosses the foul line before reaching the third base is foul, because it is an imposed condition of the question. The real question is if this is the only way to play baseball? Of couse it isn’t, and so likewise, I have to wonder if when we say something is logically impossible that all we are really doing is answering a question about the rules of our logic, of logic as we use and understand it and within the constraints of human capacity. Could there be another way of doing logic? That is the real question, the real issue of whether something is impossible, or merely inconceivable. I’m not sure how one would even go about answer it though, if the issue is one of the boundaries of human intellectual capabilities. It isn’t exactly an option to step outside of these limitations and evaluate them.

In essence, are we tracking the structure of the mind or some fundamental reality about the world? If it is just the mind, than a different mind would have a different logic. Claims of inconceivability are statements about how we perceive the world, whereas a statement of impossibility would seem to imply something beyond our subjectively imposed categories, and say something about the world itself, independent of our perceptions. Consider, if p and ~p truly are impossible in every possible world, this would include every possible intelligence generated by those worlds, and so be independent of the perspectives those intellects bring to their observations. It truly would seem to be making an objective claim about not just our reality, but of any reality, of all realities, a truly universal truth without even the possibility of referential boundaries. Can we really countenance such claims or hope to justify their incredible reach?

Will the Real Socrates Please Stand Up

In the Plato course I am taking this semester, we have been reading secondary material, each of which proposing various methods for discerning the historic Socrates from the body of literature available to us. And in each case the author (Vlastos, Kahn, Irwin and now Brickhouse and Smith), paints for the reader an attractively plausible picture of Socrates drawn skillfully from a range of materials which they frame as being generally trustworthy.

The problem with these accounts is that each of them seems to express an overly optimistic estimation of their ability to accomplish the task, an optimism most frequently expressed through a willingness to admit various textual sources as representing a core of reliable historical information from which to build a theory of the historic Socrates and upon which they can coalesce other, more questionable materials based on how well they correlate with this core of certain texts.

But is this any way to prosecute such an investigation, to admit various materials merely upon the assumption of psychological plausibility? Certainly not, for what will end up occuring is that these core texts will almost certainly define any further search and so dictate precisely what one will find, without any of the rigorous scrutiny that other sources will be subjected to. I would like to propose an alternate method, one based on a more skeptical outlook on the endeavor.

The first step is to admit that there is no core textual source upon which we can readily rely upon. There are a variety of reasons scholars have looked to Plato, and particularly Plato’s early dialogues, as being this core, but unless we are willing to subject these texts to the same level scrutiny and verification as other sources, then we have accomplished nothing but confirmed Plato’s idealization (and perhaps even fictionalization) of Socrates, and we have no reason for assuming that it is any more accurate than any other besides the fact that his writings are the most extensive we have on Socrates, and this isn’t a reason for trusting it. We cannot go into this investigation expecting to accomplish anything, and conversely, we must be willing, upon the completion of our examination, to come away with the conclusion that we really know nothing about the historic Socrates. Only then can we proceed to be convinced by the facts of anything regarding the person of Socrates.

Next, we have to proceed with a more rigorous method of investigation. This means that our primary core of information needs to come, not from one particular text or selection of texts, but rather from a set of facts. The highest order of facts are those which have independent verification from multiple contemporary sources. This will serve as the core to verify any further investigation, for either the inclusion or exclusion of supplementary material.

Next in the hierarchy of trustworthiness would be critical statements from supporters and/or positive statements from critics. This needs to be done contextually however, since clearly not everything that was seen as being a criticism or compliment then would be seen so today. In addition to this, we have to be cautious that these facts are independent, since a critic could merely be citing some incidental fact which they received by a positively biased source, and equal caution should be applied to incidental criticisms in the accounts of supporters.

The final source of information would be the uncorroborated, and uncritical, testimony of both supporters and critics. These sources should only be accepted with strong reservations and only as supplemental information to what has already been verified, preferably from our primary sources. I considered trying to work out a distinction between who might be more trustworthy between supporters and critics, but while I am inclined to see supporters as being slightly more helpful in determining historical information, I don’t believe the difference is sufficient to separate the two in our epistemological hierarchy.

Essentially, the problem I see here is that this issue of who Socrates was is not sufficiently being treated as a historical problem, and not a philosophical problem. Because of this, not all of the source material is being subjected to the same level of scrutiny, with a subtle bias being directed towards materials that favor or interest the philosophic mind. And even though the results of the historical investigation may have ramifications for the philosophical understanding of Plato and his dialogues, it is not a philosophical question and should not be treated as such.

Too much credence is given to Plato and his description of Socrates, and there are too many questions about the dates for his dialogues, his purpose for writing them, and just how much liberty he took with the historical person of Socrates. Clearly, even as early as the Apology, if that be considered one of the early dialogues (if not the earliest), Plato had already transformed Socrates from a man into his idealization of what a philosopher is to be. Thus, the beatification of Saint Socrates, patron saint of philosophy began early, and spawned a whole industry of hagiography centered upon the various projected ideals which nearly all of western philosophy found in him. Giving Plato, the leading evangelist for the glorification of Socrates, an uncritical and influencial voice in the investigative process will only hamper efforts to discern the Socrates behind the personification of philosophical ideals.

An Attempt at Clarity

2) As far as evaluation of beliefs, assume I am talking about what you call “first order beliefs”. In considering church authority you have a belief(s) that determine your belief that “church authority is unreliable”, now I have been asking for that belief(s). You have put up at least two accounts of that belief now; one of the things I have been trying to, eventually, get at is why should someone hold that belief, the one that determines that “church authority is unreliable”.

Here is a link to the specific reason I came to the conclusion that church authority is unreliable. Essentially, I believe that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox claims of universal authority, whether the instrument of that authority be the Papacy or an Ecumenical Council, is wrong, and that history (of which I give an example in the link) demonstrates this. This error, which is at the heart of their claim to be preservers of truth, severely undercuts this claim, and to my mind calls in to question altogether because of the fundamental nature of it.

This convinced me that there was no unified or catholic church, at least not in any sense of the word that didn’t spiritualize it out of the temporal realm and away from any state in which it could be deemed useful for someone looking for an authority for transmitting truth. The best that could be said of them is that they were adequate for communicating local beliefs. Even in this, it could only be said that what was preserved was the opinions of those who, often through political machinations, overcame competing beliefs and labelled them heterodox. This could be seen as providencial, despite the often questionable techniques used to gain the upper hand, if not for the fact that it was not always the same beliefs that gained acceptance within the various Christian communities. This forces me to either choose one community over another, in which case I am the arbitrator of truth and not the community, or else to deem the matter inconsequential to the unity of Christiandom, constituting a rejection of authority since none of these communities deemed the matter to be indifferent.

I don’t know if I need to discuss Protestantism or not, since I am still not clear if this is an option you are advocating. I will leave this explanation as is and hope that it will prove more fruitful for examination than my previous attempts. I have no clue if we have methodological differences. I believe the discussion has been muddled down in philosophical language, and I am going to try and eschew this jargon in favor of simpler language in the hopes that it will prove to be more clear.

More for Cogitans

1) As to the transparency of one’s beliefs, it seems reasonable that we can evaluate our beliefs, fallibly perhaps, but still you evaluated belief about how the well the Church could supply you with reasons/reliability and given certain things you judged that the Church is unreliable.

But making an evaluation of first order beliefs (like evaluating the church) is not the same as peering past this and trying to see the higher level beliefs that ground them. I provided what I could, but it seemed to me at the time that you were hoping I would detail the structure of my beliefs at a more foundational level. I’m thinking this probably isn’t worth arguing about however, since it is largely incidental to the question. All I can do is offer what details I am aware of, and I have done that.

3) Something that is not very clear to me is your Authority of Rome path. It is probably as clear as day to you, but not so for me. Clearly understanding (as well as is possible) your Authority of Rome path seems to be something you might want to explore more (or if you are willing, explain at least to me). The reason I say that is because without a God-Experience your only option seems to be something along historical and/or ecclesiastical grounds.

I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily Rome, as in the Pope, who is the authority I am talking about. When I mentioned Rome, what I meant was the Roman empire, within which European Christianity took root and grew. It was this experience that the churches who grew out of this milieu universalized, and so in turn universalized their responses to this environment. The question of church authority, i.e., catholicity and apostolicity (or your historical and ecclesiastical grounds), as epistemic grounds has also been shaped by this historical fact. There is no unified center of authority, either epistemic or otherwise, within Christianity, and this determination served to de-emphasize the church as a source of epistemological authority, hence my return to subjective God-experience.


I apologize for my earlier defensiveness. I had been under the impression that you were making some kind of argument on behalf of Protestantism (I had assumed this when you made reference to “historical documents” when I had mentioned Tradition and Apostolic succession). I am curious about your statement, saying “I am just trying to lead you in a direction I myself have found fruitful”. What direction is this?

More thoughts with Cogitans

Cogitans had been kind enough to email me a few days back, and I had been remiss in offering a response of some sort. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to conduct the discussion here or via email, but here seems to be where it is happening, and it isn’t such a bad place to have it aired anyway. At least there is the potential for someone else to contribute as well.

What were the beliefs that were instrumental in your various collaspings?

If it wasn’t already apparent, the beliefs, or belief, that was instrumental in my various collapsings, was that I had, in some sense of the word, justification for my Christian beliefs. This was first pursued through external means, namely a belief that the Church could provide me with the reasons necessary, or at least with a reliable means towards attaining the belief, even if the reasons for it were not always apparent. This was, to my mind, thoroughly shattered upon the discovery that the historical conception of ecclesiology that one is given through the Church as it developed within the Roman Empire is a severely myopic one that was incapable of understanding itself outside of these political and cultural borders, and which was in stark contrast with how the broader historical account of Christianity (and ecclesiology) developed outside of these borders. There was nothing normative about this Roman-centric account other than that those who developed within believed it to be so, and so formulated subsequent conceptions of the Church that continued to narrow the breadth of Christianity until the two demarcations roughly coincided with each other.

The second belief, or method to secure the proposition that my beliefs were justified, was drawn from my background in Pentecostalism, namely that Christianity is primarily a relationship, and not about external religion (or religiosity). This naturally followed from my disappointment with my externalist approach, but was clearly reinforced because of my upbringing to be an easy fall back solution to my problem, with the only exception being that it didn’t provide a solution to my problem. Instead, I discovered that I had absolutely no internal sense of recognition of the God I was supposed to be in relation with, and whose relationship was supposed to be the basis, or grounds, for my faith. No warming of the Soul when I prayed, no sense of divine revelation (in any sense of the word) when I read the Scriptures. The passage I quoted from Mother Teresa describes my experience almost perfectly, an experience of a vast and empty nothingness. Of course this was inadequate to base any sort of faith upon, and thus my current predicament.

I currently have absolutely no idea how, if, or when God will aid me in escaping this predicament. It could very well be that I will discover some completely other external method for securing my beliefs, or at least grounding sufficient faith to allow me to hold these beliefs. Or perhaps my previous historical and ecclesiastical methodology is largely sound, and all that is needed is a minor tweak to the idea to make it work again. Or God could burst forth alive and well within my heart, and I would hear his voice in the Scripture and feel his presence in prayer, and all my insecurities would be swept away like so many of yesterdays worries. It really is not for me to determine how this will happen. It is in God’s hands, and I suspect he will move as he pleases.

I tend to think of our noetic structure somewhat like the how we get the regress problem. Thus our beliefs are like a big building built upon “foundations”. Within this picture we can take a subsection of our noetic structure and look at its constituents. Regardless of the total picture being true it seems that we do make use of micro-noetic structures. This is the case in any philosophical argument. Either it is chain-like, multiple-pillar-like, or some combination of the two.

Frankly, I don’t think the inner workings of our thought processes, whether individual beliefs or whole belief systems, are as readily transparent as all that. It is too easy for us to come up with an explanation that is satisfactorily internally consistent but whose only virtue is that it fits well with the current narrative we are fond of telling ourselves (and others). I think our best bet for understanding these things is time spent in reflective thought combined with a broad selection of intellectual instruments to help test our narrative. And even then it may only be better by degrees. I do my best to be absolutely clear to myself and others on the “what” of what has happened to me, while understanding that any arrival at “how” or “why” is necessarily a tentative and evolving state of affairs. I believe I have reasons now (which I have attempted to elucidate above), but I am not sure they are the same reasons I will think I have at a later point in time.

Of course, all of that could have been a waste of time, as I’m not entirely clear on your meaning in the above passage. I’m not entirely clear with the nomenclature you are using, such as your use of quoted “foundations” or “micro-noetic structures”. In addition, even if you were to spend the necessary time to clarify these to me, I have serious doubts about whether it will be of any serious consequence to the fate of the larger question at hand, which is namely how I might regain my lost faith. I suppose you are attempting to arrive at some solution by first understanding what the problem is, but I have already offered several descriptions of what I perceive the problem to be, and I think at some point we begin to fool ourselves if we think we are capable of finer grained description of the matter than what our cognitive tools allow us to arrive at. At some point, we have to accept the limitations of detail our analysis affords us and attempt an answer from the data we have, regardless of the margin of error it carries with it. Only by putting forth a testable explanation can we then refine our understanding by evaluating the success, or lack thereof, in the theories ability to both account for the past data while at the same time offer predictive power for future data (in this case, a successful refutation of my insecurities and doubts).

A Clarification on “Where to go?”

Cogitans asks:

What is the load that is supposed to be carried and why are the historical documents unable to carry that load? (I am thinking primarily of the New Testament documents)

I don’t believe I was talking about historical documents, although that certainly is included in what I was speaking of. It is Christianity as a whole, the continuous community of believers along with the religious tradition that defines them, that has failed as a truth preserving unit. My attempts at discerning the limitations of this institution ultimately ended in failure, in that I concluded that no such institution, at least not one that can be clearly defined, exists. One can then fall back on the belief that the Church is rather an amalgamation of loosely related institutions, at least from the human perspective, and that the truth is diffused throughout this conglomeration. But why is the truth preserved if not to be communicated? And if it is intended to be communicated, then one should be able to discern where the truth is and is not, and yet without those clear demarcations, this is not possible. Thus, the institution fails as a truth preserver, since it is an insignificant claim to have preserved the truth if one cannot also communicate it.

Secondly, as far as Scripture itself is concerned, if the community that vouches for its authenticity and authority is demonstrated to be unreliable, then not only is the communities interpretive capacity called into question, but so is the manuscripts themselves. My ability to relate to the text is impaired both in my ability to understand its meaning as well as come to it with an attitude of trust. Now, this would not be so devastating if one had some sort of internal witness to the veracity of the writings as a backup to these external verifications, but if this is absent, then the entire enterprise fails. It is a distinctly Protestant mindset that understands these documents as being capable of standing by themselves, as somehow independent of and epistemically free of the community that preserved them and testified of them. And yet even this will fail should the Protestant tradition be demonstrated erroneous, for then the one link between the community and the books that Protestantism does make, namely that they are independent, fails as well. And as I said earlier, I see no reason to prefer this later tradition to the one that preceeded it.

I would like you to address is the cultural-boundness issue. It seems you want to claim that any revelatory acts by God in a cultural context are not possible. If this is a correct understanding then I would like to know why you think this is so.

I do admit to the possibility of cultural context with divine revelation, in fact, it seems imminently reasonable to expect something like this. The difficulty, then, is not that said revelation is contextual to the time and place in which it occured, but that I have no way of singling it out from the surrounding cultural static that is seen filling history. Again, it comes back to the problem of discernment of the truth and justification for any claims to have arrived at some level of certainty. I cannot tell if this or that is revelation as opposed to simply being cultural static. One could claim that there is no such thing as cultural static, but attempts to flesh that out would seem to me to quickly run into problems of religious syncretism and or some form of epistemic relativism and religious universalism

Where to go?

What path is there for me to take in finding God? The criticisms of my internalist epistemology by Cogitans, and I suppose justly criticized considering the failure exhibited by them, are nevertheless missing the point. I only took recourse to internalism when externalist measures were found to have failed me. This was the great faith experiment of my life, of looking for God through the guidance of the Church. And the results of this endeavor was my arrival at the conclusion that there was no reliability to be found in these external epistemological methods. Instead, what had been trumpeted as being a true guide to the Christian faith, Tradition and the historical ecclesiastical continuity (i.e., some type of Apostolic succession) were nothing more than historically and culturally accidental to Christianity.

And those who lean towards the rejection of these historical standards are in no better position. Protestantism has no better claim by which to displace this older standard. They have simply selected their own standard, based on the historical and cultural parameters of their own time and used these as a measure to find fault with the previous method. It is this failure to find grounds for one method or another, the collapse of the externalist endeavor within Christianity, that ultimately drove me to return to my internalist roots (Pentecostalism, although even here internalism is held to be more of an ideal than a practical reality), the very epistemology I had rejected way back in 1998.

So, what other options are available to me? Is there some other externalist epistemology that isn’t subject to arbitrariness? I don’t see how. The best arguments that I can think of lie with the historical methods of Tradition and Apostolic succession, and yet these have been demonstrated, at least to me, to be insufficient for the load they have been asked to carry. The one virtue they carry, that other methods lack, is that they at least have some of the markings of a status quo, and so could be looked at as the default method in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary. Aside from this, they all share the same weaknesses and epistemic disabilities of being bound by the historical, cultural, and yes, even political realities in which they took shape. It is only by faith that one can accept these realities as being part of divine providence and not merely the accidents of human and religious history. And yet this creates the most vicious of circular arguments, for one has to have faith to accept these facts of history as being divinely guided, while making these facts the basis for ones faith in them.

One thing I have been interested in is how Mother Teresa continued her own life of faith when what she describes as her crisis of faith resounds to thoroughly with my own struggles. I wonder if I shouldn’t read some of her letters, but I also fear that there really is no answer there for me, that she found her own way, and that I in turn must find mine. I hope that I will find my way. Here are some quotes from her that I found in the Wikipedia article on her:

Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul … How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, … What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.

[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak…