In my debate with Nathanael Taylor, his argument claimed that individual fallibility renders us all equally uncertain about matters of faith. In other words, due to the fact that we are fallible human actors, no one person can have any greater epistemic certainty than another.
Nate argued that, because a Catholic (fallibly) uses his intellect and will to make a choice that the Catholic Church is true, he is in no better epistemic position than the Protestant who fallibly chooses that the inerrant Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith.
This is the argument Tim Troutman rebuts in his post “Infallibility and Epistemology.” (And a similar one to the tu quoque argument that Called to Communion also rebutted.)
I summarized these rebuttals during the debate. I borrowed Tim’s example about Nathanael and I trying to help our friend Joe find the pizza parlor. Nathanael gives him a map (analogous to the Bible) while in addition to the map I give Nathanael a reliable guide that can read directions well. (Nathanael and I both know Joe cannot read directions that well.) Joe is obviously in a better position having the map and a reliable guide to the map (even though the map itself is accurate).
Nathanael’s attempted rebuttal was: “ah, but there are seven different maps” (one for each religion), but that is nonsensical, as the map is the Bible which we agree on. To bring up different religions here is to talk about something unrelated to the point in question.
Tim also gives the more rigorous philosophical reason why Nathanael’s argument is in error:
Here’s the argument. Scripture + Church is not better than Scripture alone because of man’s fallibility. So man’s fallibility is said to be the cause of Scripture + Church not being better than Scripture as regards certainty. Now God could have placed us in various states of infallible authority. Consider the basic three as follows. 1. No infallible authority. 2. Scripture only. 3. Scripture + Church. Now Protestants agree that 2 is an improvement on 1, but 3 is not an improvement on 2.1 But if man’s fallibility caused 3 not to improve on 2, then it would also cause 2 not to improve on 1. This is because, objectively speaking, 3 is better than 2 just as (and in the same way that) 2 is better than 1. A living authority that lacks the possibility of error and is capable of addressing any new question (along with the inerrant document) is better than only an inerrant document addressing a limited number of questions and unable to clarify itself.
But if this fact is nullified by man’s failure to receive it infallibly because of something inherent in man himself (fallibility), then it can only be because the infallibility of any source is necessarily reduced to fallible interpretation by man. So objectively speaking, the Scripture alone (2) is better than no infallible authority (1), but in regard to man, 2 is not better than 1 because such infallibility (or inerrancy) is reduced to fallible interpretation in man.
Sure, 2 might be better than 1 practically; Scripture is true and therefore sets us on the right path. But according to this argument it is not better than 1 in regard to certainty because man is a fallible interpreter. And yes, 3 might be better than 2 on some practical level, but not in regard to certainty. All infallible sources are reduced to fallible interpretations by man so nothing is really better than anything else as far as certainty goes. The moment we say that 3 is not better than 2, we simultaneously say 2 is not better than 1. And the moment we say that 2 is better than 1, we say that 3 is better than 2 (or would be if it was true).
The Protestant argument fails because we all know and agree that 2 is better than 1. Therefore 3 is also better than 2.
And that, quite simply, is that. Nathanael either did not understand his error, or he is an adherent to philosophical skepticism. (I’m not sure which, perhaps he will respond here and tell us.)
There’s something more though. In one place (around the 1:02:45 mark), Nathanael conceded that the Catholic is in a better epistemic position. Yet, he spent most of the debate, both before and after this point, denying that this was so. Hence, he contradicted himself and his concession undermines his central argument (that fallibility levels the playing field no matter what).
After this concession, he tried to claim epistemic certainty didn’t matter though because I had to choose between other self-proclaimed “infallible” Churches: Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism and the Sedevacantists.
While I certainly agree that the mere claim of infallibility is not enough to decide which Church is the one founded by Christ, I had already laid out the other reasons for choosing the Catholic Church, in answer to his first question (“how do you know which infallible Church is the correct one?”). You start in the first century and trace the Church Christ founded forward. There are motives of credibility for the Catholic Church. So this claim of Nate’s also fails.
Nathanael put himself in an untenable philosophical position when he implied that individuality fallibility entails fallibilism (that certainty of knowledge is impossible). Dr. Bryan Cross demonstrates why this claim is in error:
It is important to distinguish between the susceptibility of an agent to err, and the possible falsehood of any proposition held or stated by that agent. The fact that we are susceptible to err does not entail that we cannot know with certainty that any of our beliefs are true. Nor does it entail that every proposition believed or stated might be false. When we state a true proposition, the fact that we could instead have stated a different, and false, proposition, does not mean that we cannot be certain that the proposition is true. The fallibility of the agent should not be confused with the fallibility of the proposition stated or believed by the agent. The fallibility of the agent does not entail skepticism about knowledge or about truth. It does not prevent us from knowing the truth, and knowing it with certainty; fallibility does not entail fallibilism.
In fact, based on Nathanael’s repeated statements during our debate, he does not think we can know anything with certainty. Hence, as he said, we must rely on our individual interpretation of the books that we think are Scripture (which may include some non-inspired ones) that the “generally reliable” Church chose, and the basis for our faith is no more sturdy than this cascade of fallible choices.
Dr. Cross explains that this is incorrect, and that we can indeed have more certainty about one proposition versus another:
Not only that, but our fallibility does not prevent us from having more certainty about x than y. And that is because we can perceive the truth of some things to a greater degree than we do other things.
When we are epistemically limited to testimony, the more credible the witness the greater reason we have for believing the testimony to be true. And when the witness is God, we can be absolutely certain that His testimony to be true and without error, because God cannot lie or err. So in what cases is God testifying? Jesus authorized His Apostles to speak for Him, saying, “He who listens to you, listens to Me, and he who rejects you, rejects Me.” We know, with certainty, by the testimony of the Church (those whom Christ authorized to speak for Him), that God spoke in the writing of Scripture. These words are God-breathed, and so we know with absolute certainty that they are protected from error. Likewise, from the very same Church that is authorized to speak for Christ, we know that the Church is protected from error by the Holy Spirit under certain conditions, such as when she defines dogmas.
Just as we gain epistemic certainty about the truth of the content of Scripture from knowing that Scripture is protected from error, so likewise we gain epistemic certainty about the truth of the dogmas of the Church from knowing that the Church is protected from error when she defines dogmas. All of that is fully compatible with our being fallible agents.
Interestingly, Nathanael’s goal during the debate seems to have been to play for a mere draw, or stalemate, based on (the erroneous claim of) fallibilism. Or, perhaps, to first get the stalemate and then use “Occam’s Razor” to say Protestantism is better because it has less books in its Bible and does not have the Magisterium. I’ll take up his usage of Occam’s Razor (and how he applies it to transubstantiation) in a post later this week.
Here is the debate again: