Understanding and Believing

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (251)

Is it true that “one can’t believe impossible things”? Actually, it’s quite possible, and I imagine a lot of people do it all the time. If it’s not possible, then my own belief that it is possible would prove it wrong. Or something like that.

But the insight in this passage is not that impossible things are unbelievable, but that if I believe that something is impossible, I cannot at the same time believe that it is possible. That would be a contradiction.

One might argue that people sometimes do believe contradictory things, but I would argue that “believe” is probably too strong a word to describe what they are doing. One can assent to two contradictory things at once, but only if one is unaware of the contradiction. There has to be an absence of understanding about one or both things to which one has given one's assent. A contradiction is by its very nature unintelligible. All one can understand is that there is nothing to be understood.

Assent is Not Belief

I don’t think mere “assent” should really be considered “belief.” One can assent without understanding, and can therefore assent to something that is unintelligible. One can assent to the notion of a “square circle,” for example. But one cannot believe that such a thing exists, if one understands the words “square” and “circle” to mean what they are commonly understood to mean.

Actually, that brings up a different problem: the relationship between language and meaning.

Language and Meaning

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (268-269)

This passage highlights two important facts about language. The first is the arbitrary relationship between a word and that which the word refers to. To answer Alice's question, yes, you can make a word mean whatever you want it to mean. But you won't be understood by anyone who doesn't understand it in the same way. Which is the second important fact: verbal communication requires mutual understanding. Alice did not understand what Humpty Dumpty meant by the word “glory,” and so failed to catch his meaning – until he told her, that is.

It seems to me that both the arbitrariness of language and the necessity of mutual understanding have serious implications for Christianity, so I'm going to explore those concepts a little more.

When I say language is arbitrary, I simply mean that words and sentences have no necessary connection to that which they refer. Thus, the words "horse," "cheval," "cavallo," "Pferd," and "equus" can all refer to the same animal. But they only refer to that animal to the people who understand that that is what they refer to.

Maybe that sounds obvious, but it seems to me that language is sometimes thought to have properties that contradict this. For example, there are dogmas that are, apparently, incomprehensible to the human mind. And yet, they are nevertheless expressed in statements that, even though they can't be understood, are nevertheless asserted to have meaning.

The Incarnation

Many Christians insist that Jesus is both fully "human" and fully "divine." Or they will say that he has both a "divine nature" and a "human nature." But I don't know too many people who are willing to explain precisely what they mean by either or both of those terms. It is usually shrugged off as a "mystery," but I think this is just evading the issue.

If the doctrine of the Incarnation is true, then there can be no conflict between a human and a divine nature existing in one person. But I think it is fair to say that there is a conflict, at least as most people understand the terms "human" and "divine." Personally, I can not think of a way to reconcile the two without radically redefining at least one of them. And if a word has to be redefined in such a drastic way, wouldn’t it make sense to just create a new word? Why insist on using a word in such a manner that is so contrary to the way it is commonly understood? All it does it create confusion. [1]

It seems to me that the whole notion of an incomprehensible mystery being expressed in language relies on a rather naïve "correspondence theory of truth." What I mean by that is the theory that a proposition is true if it corresponds to reality.

It seems to be implied that dogmatic propositions correspond to facts, whether they are understood or not. But the fact is not contained within the proposition. It is communicated by the proposition, and only to those who understand it. If you don’t understand a proposition, communication has not taken place, and that which it affirms (or denies) is no closer to you than if you had never heard the proposition at all.


[1] The traditional solution of predicating every characteristic of divinity to one nature, and every characteristic of humanity to another nature, and then asserting that these two natures are united in one “person,” raises the problem of how to define “person.” For example, what does it mean to say that one “person” can have “two wills”? (Actually, it doesn’t mean anything, because a “will” is not a thing that one “has,” as was supposed by the “faculty psychology” of an earlier age. What is attributed to the will is simply the operations of a conscious-intentional subject, specifically on what Bernard Lonergan calls the fourth level of conscious-intentionality, i.e., the level of responsibility. In a previous post I described the operations of the first three levels, i.e., the empirical (experiencing), intellectual (understanding), and rational (reflecting and judging, etc.). I didn’t really talk much about the fourth level, so I’ll do that sometime in the near future.)

At any rate, even if we accept the concept of a reified “will,” I fail to see how a “person” could have more than one. I don’t think there is an intelligible concept there.

Works Cited



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