Monday, 19 May 2008

Response to Priscilla

Hi Priscilla,

Many thanks for writing your thoughtful comments on my blog Infallibility 4. When I saw that you had left your comments on Baha'is Online, I decided it was probably time I put aside my misgivings about comments and open up my blog to comments. Although, the function is moderated and I don't plan to let just anything on. I value my time and that of my readers too much.

I think you have found some flaws in my argument.

You said: "I'm having a bit of difficulty with the section of this piece on the "physical world" and fallibility/infallibility. I wonder if “physical world” is not quite what you mean or if you mean it in a way I do not understand. Perhaps you can clarify."

Yes, I can see the source of the confusion now. By "physical world", I mean this world as opposed to the next one, which is a spiritual world. The Arabic word "al-dunya" means this world and is used to refer to the world in which we live this, our first life before we die and move on to the next one. It includes the entirety of the physical universe and all that is in it and not just nature.

"Both the definitions of infallibity that you give assume a judging, acting consciousness, something the physical world (trees, rocks, stars, dog turds, water molecules, etc.), as far as I know, does not have. Since I don’t see how the physical world can err, be deceived, sin, or disbelieve, etc, I don’t see how it can be “the very opposite” of infallible in either the propositional inerrancy sense of the term or in the sense that you attribute to Baha’u’llah."

Yes, you're right. It was a random thought that should have been removed in the editing for the very reason you give. I'm still nutting these issues out myself of course, and sometimes random ideas that come during writing lead to important ideas. I thought this one had promise! I think I was probably taken by the way the randomness of the world made claims to propositional inerrancy seem just silly.

"As I think about it more, I realize that I have been under the impression that the Baha’i writings (somewhere I can’t locate at the moment, perhaps because the passages don’t exist) give the idea that the physical/natural world perfectly reflects the divine to the degree that it can because it has no choice but to do so. (And also that we humans have the capacity to more fully reflect the divine, but also the free will that allows us not to.) This idea of the “physical world” seems to me to be more in-line with the idea of infallibility you attribute to Baha’u’llah than opposite to it."

Yes, the writings do say that nature perfectly reflects the divine. Here is the classic on that one:

"Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator. Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe." (Baha'u'llah: Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p142)

"I would note, too, that Muhammad’s error in stopping the manual fertilization of date trees was in ignoring the predictability of changes in the physical world, not an outcome of its liability to 'change in any way at any time.' It seems in the examples you give that it is human choice and consciousness that are contingent, not 'the physical world.' Of course, we are part of the physical world, too . . . but I don’t think our part can really be generalized to all of it, to the very nature of 'the physical world.'"

Yes, what you say has made me realise that those were poor examples of my point. The reason I like those stories is the last comment from Muhammand that: 'You are more knowledgeable about your world.' This points nicely to ideas I want to discuss next. I will argue that infallibility is a virtue not a knowledge, like compassion is a virtue but not a knowledge of the world. Although, at the same time, we might say that a person who is compassionate has knowledge, but it is different to, say, being able to predict earthquakes. But I won't say any more because I'll end up running away with myself.


Priscilla Gilman said...


Thanks for your good reply. I just wanted to say that I think there is still something to what you were trying to get at. You say,

“I think I was probably taken by the way the randomness of the world made claims to propositional inerrancy seem just silly.”

I think you are right that there is something silly about claims to propositional inerrancy in our world, and it’s interesting to try and suss out why. I guess, as just a first attempt at the subject, I would say it has more to do with complexity than randomness, especially the complexity of communication, language, culture, consciousness, subjectivity, and free will. With all those factors in play, any claim to fixed, unchanging, and certain knowing seems silly. Even if the knowing is there the transmission of it is terribly vexed.

On a more theological level, claims to propositional inerrancy seem anti-God to me. Or at least against our fundamental relationship with God. I’m afraid that in attempting to banish uncertainty, we may be banishing the divine. Big subject.

my best to you,


Alison Marshall said...

Yes, I agree with you that propositional inerrancy is anti-God. That's the reason I can't let the subject go, because it seems to be against the principle that we worship God alone. It sets up the possibility of joining partners with God. If we can truly say of someone that they are propositionally inerrant, and we rely on them as a result, then we do not rely on God any more.

I wrote an article about this many years ago, "Commentary on the Divine Unity",