Friday, May 08, 2009

Woo Enthymemes #2: "Theologians are Experts in Theology!"

Welcome to the second edition of Woo Enthymemes, a new series where I cover various fundamental, unstated assumptions in woo. Today's enthymeme looks like a tautology, in the way that "biologists are experts in biology" is expected to be a tautology. It doesn't quite work out, however.

For someone to be considered a biologist, they have to demonstrate an expertise in the subject. Biologists have to be familiar with existing literature and theories, as well as conduct biological research. This shouldn't be a surprise. If you don't look closely enough, you might say something similar about theologians.

The problem: How do you conduct research into theology? How do you experiment with gods? A biologist can point to a living creature, examine it, and record observations as well as formulate theories and, by extension, make firm predictions. The subject of biology, life, exists. We can say this with great confidence. Not so much with gods. All the various sciences can demonstrate the existence of the entities they study, even ones that aren't immediately obvious or easily understood. Theology, however, has yet to demonstrate the existence of gods, much less any specific god. Without that fundamental detail, the whole edifice is founded on vapor and wishful thinking.

That's why many of my blogging friends consider theology to be on par with fandom trivia. A fan of Star Trek, for instance, can make logical deductions using the "evidence" of the TV series to explain how warp drive works, but that doesn't prove that faster-than-light travel is possible because there's no evidence that the Enterprise exists as anything more than a fictional star ship made to entertain television viewers. Gods are in no better a position than Kirk, Picard, or Sisko, and theologians are in no better a position than over-obsessed television fans who think a show is real.


James K said...

The essential issue is that theology assumes the existence if gods. Since theology relies on this assumption it cannot substantiate it. OK, this isn't true of the arguments for gods, but these arguments can be evaluated independantly.

Tom Foss said...
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Tom Foss said...

I think there's a terminological problem here. I'd say that theologians frequently are experts in theology. Similarly, I'd consider myself an expert on the DC Universe, and I've known English professors who were experts in the Cthulhu mythos and Tolkien's works. I don't think this is a problem.

The problem, and I think this is actually what you're trying to say, is that while "biologists are experts on living things" is more or less tautologically true, "theologians are experts on gods" is no more necessarily true than "Tolkien scholars are experts on magic." A theologian may be well-versed on all the writings of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and so on and so forth, just as a Mythos Scholar is well-versed on the writings of Lovecraft and Derleth and so forth, but neither one has access to any gods, sleeping or otherwise.

It's a difference, I think, of the kind of primary sources each discipline has at their disposal. For biologists, the primary sources are actual living things, which they can directly study and examine and bring into the laboratory and whatnot. The primary sources of theologians, literature scholars, comic fans, and Trekkies, are stories. If all biologists had to go on were stories about living creatures, then it would be silly to think that they were experts on anything but stories--which is almost precisely what we see in Cryptozoology. I may know all about the various accounts, modern and ancient, of Bigfoot, but I don't know squat about any actual information about actual Sasquatches. When your only primary sources are secondary sources, it'd be hard to call you an expert on the primary subject.

Dunc said...

Hey, at least over-obsessed television fans have solid source material. Farscape may not be real, it may not even be internally consistent, but there's no real room for debate over who the characters are and what happened in each episode.

Shadowen said...

I considered a theologist who's actually an expert at it to be a specialized historian. If you prefer, maybe even a specialized liberal arts major (if one wants to classify the study of the evolution of religions as studying literary techniques as opposed to historical forces).

Vash said...

I think I see what you're getting at here, but the way you've presented it is full of fail.

Firstly 'biologists are experts on biology' is only a tautology when combined with several unstated premises, such as "The education system is largely incorruptible", "Biologists are people who have actual qualifications in biology, not just those who work in the field.", "Only accredited institutions are acceptable", "The education system in your country is capable of teaching biology to 'expert' level", "Expert is a relative term relating to current knowledge levels in biology"

However, given all of that sort of thing, it is a tautology, so to speak. But you miss the point with your next part about theology-

Indeed, there's no evidence for the existence of gods nor any specific god, however, theology is not just God-ology - more generally, it is the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, or of spirituality* - it's not the 'science of God' it's the 'study of the philosophy of religion' - and that's what they're experts in, not 'God'. They're just experts in what people believe about God. If they were experts in 'God' then all of what you say would be true.

Given that, and the unstated premises that we applied to biologists (only qualified ones, from accredited institutions, with expert level courses) - then it is a tautology that theologians are experts in theology.

That doesn't mean that they have proof of God, or proof that any one theology is right, it just means that they know about that theology - and if they are experts, have detailed knowledge of the claims of that theology, what they mean, how they work with each other and inform each other, objections to those claims (inconsistencies, alternate interpretations, contradictions, challenges on historical grounds etc).

It is however, like you say, similar to the study of a television show's canon. If there were degrees for 'Fanology', from accredited quality institutions then it would also be a tautology that Fanologists are experts in Fanology.

Bronze Dog said...

Vash, I don't see how educational institutions are in my premises. It's hypothetically possible for someone persistent enough to read lots of studies, understand them, and form logical conclusions based on his knowledge, and perform experiments. That would make him an expert. The educational system is essentially just formalizing that process and awarding the people who do that with letters after their name.

As for theology, yes, you can compare it to a degree in fanology or literature. The problem with that sort of "expertise," though, is that I see no reason they're better qualified to determine what a real god would be like, or how to find evidence of such a being.

Vash said...

I was taking it from the word 'biologists', as it was an easy way of ruling out self styled biologists who claim expertise in the area but are really ignorant or cranks.

- also I assumed from "they have to demonstrate an expertise in the subject" and "Biologists have to be familiar with existing literature and theories, as well as conduct biological research" that you were talking about people with qualifications.

You can rule out non-experts from the category of 'biologists' and fulfill your criteria above with other premises, if education isn't how you want to do it - for example "'biologists' means people who know and understand a large amount about biology, are familiar with existing literature and theories" - that way the successfully self-educated can be included. (And cranks excluded)

But this same premise also goes for theologians, in the same way, and in the end they're still both tautologies.

I see no reason they're better qualified to determine what a real god would be like, or how to find evidence of such a being.I agree. But that's not what being a theologian means. A theologian is not an expert in determining what a real god would be like, nor an expert in how to find evidence of such a being - a theologian is an expert in theology.

If a theologian says "You are wrong to state that Catholics believe 'X', they actually that God is immanent and blahdiblah, and this means they believe Y" then they're talking in their area of expertise. Whether they're right or wrong depends on how good they are.
If a theologian says "God is immanent as shown by Q P and R" then they are outside their area.

We don't disagree that theologians don't have expertise in proving God, or God's characteristics, - but the way you phrased this post was framed around the "biologists are experts in biology" vs "theologians are experts in theology" - and they're both tautologies.

p.s. I ignored the theology that purports to prove God or provide evidence for him, for brevity - but it should be mentioned. Theologians should of course be experts in the theological arguments that try to prove God - but the fact that they are experts in those arguments doesn't mean any of those arguments are right (and the fact that you can't test any of those arguments doesn't mean that they aren't experts in those arguments!)- just as the existence of expert philosophers doesn't mean any of the philosophy they know is correct the existence of theologians doesn't mean that any of the theology that they are experts in is right.