Taliaferro’s Tu Quo Que

imageThe discussion in the Christ-Shaped Philosophy Project just gets better and better. In the latest round of exchanges, Charles Taliaferro (St. Olaf College) claims that Paul Moser (Loyola), who has repeatedly warned philosophers about the dangers of cognitive idolatry, is himself guilty of the very “form of reasoning he condemns as idolatry” [1]. This is a fascinating tu quo que. I mean to briefly dispute it here.

Let’s first ask about cognitive idolatry. What is it? It occurs, Prof. Moser tells us, when we “exalt ourselves as cognitive judge, jury, and executioner over God” [2]. Such a thing strikes one as an odd and inappropriate state of affairs. If you’re a Christian, for example, you probably believe things go precisely the other way around. It is God who judges our cognitive terrain. “This will take place,” says the Apostle Paul, “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secret thoughts of men by Jesus Christ” (Rom 2:16). For us to stand in judgment over God is therefore a grievous error, not to be taken lightly.

Just how do we set ourselves up as “cognitive judge, jury, and executioner over God”? We do this, says Moser, when

We presume to be in a position, on our own, to say what kind of evidence God must supply regarding God’s reality. We reason, in agreement with Bertrand Russell and many other philosophers: If God is real, God would be revealed in a way W. For instance, God would show up with considerable fireworks or at least pomp and circumstance. God, however, is not revealed in way W. Hence, God is not real…God, we suppose, must be revealed on our cognitive terms. In such cognitive idolatry… we set up our cognitive standards in ways that preclude so-called “reasonable” acknowledgment of God’s reality. [3]

For example, consider this little argument, inspired by ideas from one of Russell’s colleagues, Ludwig Wittgenstein:

1.  If God is real, then God would reveal himself empirically in the natural world. (premise)
2.  If God revealed himself empirically in the world, then the proposition “God exists” would be a proposition of natural science. (premise)
3. The proposition “God exists” is not a proposition of natural science. (premise)
4. So, God does not reveal himself in the [natural] world” (Tractatus 6.432). (2 and 3)
5.  So, God is not real. (1 and 4)

If I understand Prof. Moser correctly, this kind of Vienna Circle reasoning is cognitively idolatrous; it precludes a priori recognizing God’s reality, and it does that based on a twofold presumption. First, the argument itself presumes that the only kind of evidence that counts, when it comes to determining whether there is a God, is the evidence of natural science. And then secondly, it presumes (but nowhere attempts to prove) that we are in a decent epistemic position to know this and dictate it up front.

So far, so good. Everything seems to be in working order. Taliaferro, however, sees a problem here: “it is hard not to see Moser undertaking a similar form of reasoning that he condemns as idolatry,” in which case (I suppose) we must accuse him of cognitive idolatry. But why so? Because his “form of reasoning” is “similar” to the idolater’s. Taliaferro represents it as follows:

If God is truly morally perfect, worthy of adoration, and seeks us to abandon selfishness and come to be in relationship with human subjects as their creator and redeemer, then God would remain hidden from the impartial inquirer and be revealed instead to those who put away selfishness to encounter the God of Jesus Christ. Further, if God is morally perfect and he [i.e., Moser] is right about the way this God would be revealed to us, alternative epistemologies to this way of knowing God are flawed. [4]

Let’s agree, for argument’s sake, that this is in fact how Moser is reasoning. The question is: just how similar is it to (say) to Vienna Circle (VC) reasoning? Not very. Indeed, it seems to be vastly dissimilar in two crucial respects.

First, in the (VC) argument, we begin with a revelation presumption: God, if he exists, will reveal himself empirically in the natural world. Why is that a presumption? I think Moser would say because it’s based on “our cognitive standards”—standards “we set up” (the key words being ‘our’ and ‘we’). (VC) reasoning is presumptive because it is Protagorean, assuming (as it does) that “Man is the measure of all epistemologies.”

But it is difficult in excelsis to see how Moser begins in anything like this way. As Taliaferro presents it, Moser’s argument doesn’t appear to be Protagorean at all. If it were, we could rightly say that it was based on epistemic standard that Moser himself set up. The problem is: at least in the quoted passage—i.e., the one on which the tu quo que is built—no epistemic standard is laid down at all. Nothing is explicitly said about the manner in which God would be known, if he were real. All we’re told is who would (/wouldn’t) be privy to God’s revelation of himself.

You might reply, “Yes, but mention is made of certain moral constraints (e.g., putting away selfishness). That shows there is an evidential presumption at work.” But here there is confusion. For these constraints are simply moral preconditions on the part of recipients of the evidence; they delimit who may apprehend the evidence when it is given. They aren’t in themselves bits of evidence to be apprehended. In fact, for all that’s been said here it could be (I’m not saying it is) that the evidence is sensory and observable, but grasped only by those who meet the moral constraints. Compare Romans 1 where Paul talks about “the truth” about God, “understood from what has been made” (v.20), but which gets suppressed for (im)moral reasons, thereby resulting in futile and darkened thinking.

In any event, what Moser does tell us isn’t something we or he has “set up” or invented whole cloth. It is not based on his favored epistemology, but rather what Moser takes scripture to be saying about the matter. So again, what we have is not deep similarity to the Vienna idolatry; instead we have crucial dissimilarity.

Secondly, it is worth noting that (just on the quoted material) presumptive reasoning isn’t said to be idolatrous unless it precludes God’s reality. Thus Moser: “In such cognitive idolatry…we set up our cognitive standards in ways that preclude so-called “reasonable” acknowledgment of God’s reality.” It goes without saying that this preclusion isn’t characteristic of Moser’s form of reasoning whatsoever. His conclusion isn’t that it is unreasonable to acknowledge God’s reality based on some presumptive epistemic standard. At most what he says (again, given the quoted material) is that there are some who, as a result of moral deficiencies, are unable to see that it is reasonable to affirm God’s reality. What’s precluded is their ability to see—not God’s existence.

Tuo quo que arguments are frequently fraught with difficulty. Some work, I suppose; some don’t. In this case, however, it’s hard to see how Taliaferro’s tu quo que even gets off the ground. Consequently, I don’t think Prof. Moser has a reason here to repent of the sin of cognitive idolatry.

Works Cited

1.  Charles Taliaferro, “Is Paul Moser Among the Swinburnian Philosophical Theologians?” p. 2.

2.  Paul Moser, “Divine Hiddenness, Death, and Meaning” in Exploring the Meaning of Life; An Anthology and Guide, ed. By J.W. Seachris (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 485. Cited in Taliaferro, op. cit., p. 2.

3. Ibid.

4.  Ibid., pp. 3-4.

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One comment on “Taliaferro’s Tu Quo Que

  1. Ben Nasmith says:

    As a philosophical layman, I find the Christ-shaped philosophy project very interesting but also troubling. I can see great value in Moser’s personified (or pneumatic) epistemology, but I also see great value in Swinburne, Craig, etc’s natural theology. Practically speaking, I’m stuck trying to decide whether I can consistently teach both or just one at a new apologetics class I’m starting at my church. I know philosophers rarely agree with each other and that’s not going to change in time for me to take practical action. Any thoughts on using Moser and Swinburne “at the street” level?

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