Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord

There is an argument for Christianity called the Trilemma argument or the "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" argument. It was popularized by C. S. Lewis. This makes me think very poorly of Lewis, because it is the very model of a bad argument. To apologists' credit, I hardly ever see it in use. Let's keep it that way.

Here is a formal statement of the argument:
  1. Premise: Jesus claimed to be Lord.
  2. Conclusion: Either Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.
  3. Premise: Jesus was not a liar.
  4. Premise: Jesus was not a lunatic.
  5. Conclusion: Jesus is Lord.
With the exception of number 5, every single one of these steps is problematic. 1 out of 5 is pretty bad when you're shooting for a 5 out of 5. Let's break it down, out of order.
2. Conclusion: Either Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.
This is meant to be an exhaustive list of possibilities, but it isn't. If we want to create an exhaustive list of possibilities, we must start with a logical tautology, such as "Either P or not P". Here we can say, "Either Jesus is Lord or he isn't." If Jesus isn't Lord, we can further subdivide the possibility by saying, "Either Jesus was lying or was not lying." This is the underlying reasoning behind this conclusion, but there is a glaring mistake! If Jesus is not Lord, nor was he lying, does that really imply that Jesus was a lunatic?

Here's a lesson that belongs in the first few minutes of Skepticism 101: There are quite a number of ways for a sane person to have a wrong belief! We even have names for them: confirmation bias, logical fallacies, post hoc reasoning, cognitive dissonance, general ignorance, etc. But even if you didn't know what all those were, you would still know that everyone makes mistakes, has wrong beliefs, and sometimes changes their mind about said beliefs.

If you think that being Lord is too wild a belief for anyone to fool themselves about, you obviously haven't had much experience with skepticism. Ever heard of homeopathy? Listened to physics crackpots? Encountered 9/11 truthers? These are smart people, large groups of people, people who are every bit sane, and they believe in junk. I am no longer surprised. I am especially unsurprised that someone can honestly believe they are God. After all, here we are, only a few mistakes away from thinking that Jesus must be God, so how hard could it be? It only needed to happen to one person in two millenia, but I'm sure it's happened to plenty of people in that time.
4. Premise: Jesus was not a lunatic.
This premise essentially relies on an emotional appeal. No one wants to think anyone is a loony. Least of all does anyone want to think Jesus is a loony. I for one, would want to be absolutely sure before even considering the possibility that someone is mentally handicapped. But I would also hesitate to insult the mentally handicapped by making assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We must face the logical possibility.

But recall that I said that "lunatic" is not an exhaustive possibility. Jesus could easily have been honestly mistaken. This possibility is easier to swallow, and is also much, much more likely. The only reason "lunatic" is used in the argument rather than "mistaken" is because it has much more emotional punch. In other words, the trilemma argument uses flawed reasoning in order to better play with people's emotions. Shameful.
3. Premise: Jesus was not a liar.
This premise is also based on emotional appeal. It's usually accompanied by exhortations to spit upon liars and so forth. I happen to think this possibility is far less likely than the "honestly mistaken" one, but it must nevertheless be considered a possibility. I'm not sure how you would tell if he was a liar anyways. Liars can be nice, you know. They can be hypocrites. Out of billions of people, there only need be one. And no, entertaining the mere possibility that someone is lying doesn't mean you have to spit at them. That's a little extreme, and in poor taste.
1. Premise: Jesus claimed to be Lord.
The trilemma is still not exhaustive, because there is a whole other category of possibilities in which this premise is false. Maybe Jesus never claimed to be Lord. Maybe they only added that part in later. Maybe we've misinterpreted his claim. Maybe Jesus never existed at all. I'd prefer go with the "mistaken" possibility myself, but these new ones are very serious considerations. And I didn't even make an exhaustive list yet. The trilemma argument merely dismisses all these possibilities with hardly an argument. The phrase for this is "begging the question."

In summary, this argument is just abysmal. It is painfully wrong in several distinct ways. It's essentially, "Either we're right or we're wrong. How dare you think we could be wrong! Therefore, we are right." I question the moral character of anyone who poses this as a serious argument.


Anonymous said...

It has very nice alliteration, though. I'm sure no one would take seriously an argument called "Dishonest man, crazy person who thinks he's a chicken, or Lord".

One of the "justifications" for claims 3 and 4 is that Jesus said many wise things (therefore he couldn't be crazy) and preached good morals (therefore he was a good man and couldn't be dishonest). I don't have to tell you how ridiculous these claims are, both on their own and as justification for the conclusion.

Hugo said...

OK, followed the link to the original, but still in too much of a rush to read in depth. *shame on me*. However, the case you *seem* to be missing (quick scan, *shame on me*): the Gospels were written by followers, they wrote down the kind of stories that were told about Jesus.

In fact, a typical liberal-theological claim is that Jesus *didn't* claim to be Lord. (And John is largely a non-factual account, having been written quite late, and being a highly theological book. It's words were largely shaped by the beliefs of the early Christians.)

miller said...

I included that possibility, but I didn't really discuss it in depth. My Biblical history is really bad, so I don't think I'd be able to say much about it.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I just saw that, came back to read the post in depth to do it justice.

A liberal-Christian bible-scholar author I personally like very much, Marcus Borg, mentioned in "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time", which would badly rock most religious Christians' boat, suggested we really have way too little evidence to know anything about Jesus' own Christology (his beliefs about himself). In some places he explicitly defers to God. (Sorry, lazy to look up verses, and I don't think it is important here, just sharing my views.)

His followers attributed divinity to Jesus. (No argument there.) How long they took to draw this conclusion (during his lifetime or not) we won't ever know. I have good reason to believe the pastor of my favourite church (which I attend every now and then, used to attend regularly - it draws a lot from emerging church authors) would agree. He points out that if you speak to a rabbi, and mention Jesus was the son of God, the rabbi would reply that he too, is a son of God. Jesus as rabbi... one of the sermon series we seem to get every year is titled "follow the rabbi".

Marcus Borg sidesteps the question "was Jesus the son of God?" at seminars, with the answer "he was the son of God, the lamb of God, and the wisdom of God", with the implication that Jesus doesn't have wool growing all over his body...

Metaphorical mythos... My belief: if we could get rid of all the negative connotations around the word mythology/mythos, take something of a Joseph Cambell (mythologist of The Power of Myth fame) approach, maybe we can get to the point where people can appreciate the value of their mythologies and accept them as such. As if. I know the idea sounds absurd, and most probably is, but it's my dream. And dreams are what motivates us, dreams for a better future. May I at least make some kind of positive contribution during my quixotic quest. ;)

miller said...

Hugo, I don't think that's absurd at all. What I think is absurd is that there aren't more people who see it that way. I sometimes tell people that metaphysical truths aren't worth a whole lot, that it doesn't matter an ounce whether God exists when we're not looking at him.

But this point is lost on most people. Why, I can't even write a full comment without losing it myself.