I hate propositional logic.

I don’t really like propositional logic. I guess I shouldn’t say that I don’t like it; I really don’t mind it so much. In fact, I rely on it daily. But that doesn’t mean that I think it is as all-powerful as modern thought would have us believe. I don’t think it actually succeeds in explaining the world in all the ways that the modern project hoped it would. I don’t believe Descartes’ claims that I exist just because I can think in a straight line all the way to doubt. I believe that I exist just because I believe it. I exist in a circular kind of world. Now, at this point, I may need to prove the validity of my unbelief. I have prepared two arguments.

Argument #1

  1. To be called “God,” God must be “wholly other” (whatever that means) and infinite.
  2. Human beings are finite, conceiving of only that which can be conceived, most often propositionally.
  3. Finite beings are only capable of conceiving the infinite as a metaphysical concept in a vague fashion.
  4. Propositional logic cannot adequately explain the infinite because it cannot conceive of the infinite as anything more than a concept.
  5. God cannot be explained by propositional logic.

What this argument means to me is that belief is not rational. It is belief-based. Metaphysics, or the realm of the infinite, (as if such a thing exists) cannot help finite human beings to understand God but only to corrupt the infinite into finite conceptions. It seems to me that this is precisely what most Christian theology attempts to do. Theological discourse gives rationale to God’s character and actions, which I fear draws boundaries within which God can safely operate to maintain God’s place as God in our minds. Strongly defined theology creates expectations of what the Divine can and cannot or will and will not do. In essence, the knowledge of God legitimates human attempts to control God, though it is often described as reverence. Throw into the mix the idea of incarnation, and everything becomes infinitely more complicated. How do the finite and the infinite interact? If God cannot be explained this way, then why should it be assumed that such thinking is superior? How can we know that it is closer to the truth or reality? We simply cannot, which leads me to my second and strongest argument.

Argument #2

  1. Propositional logic is stupid.
  2. I don’t like propositional logic.
  3. Propositional logic is not valid and must be rejected.

And I rest my case.

by Matt Gallion

Matthew Gallion is a graduate student at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Religious Studies. He studies responses to American evangelicalism in postmodern contexts, particularly the emerging church and the emergent conversation, and the intersection of faith and culture, particularly in crossing the “digital divide.” Matt recently presented a paper called “The Body Disrupted: Homosexuality and the Body in Emergent Christianity” at the 9th Annual Graduate Symposium at Florida State University and at the annual Midwest American Academy of Religion meeting at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. He is also the author of “The Price of Freedom: Bribery, the Philippian Gift, and Paul’s Choice in Philippians 1:19-26,” which won the prize for best graduate paper at the annual meeting of the Central States Society of Biblical Literature. He received his B.A. from Southwest Baptist University in Biblical Studies and recently served as a campus minister in the United Methodist Church at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.


9 thoughts on “I hate propositional logic.

  1. It is interesting that you allude to the undefined nature of “wholly other” and thus the need for a useful definition, but you leave “infinite” out ther as a presumed, a priority given which all can agree on, apparently both as to it’s meaning and as a presumptive defining characteristic of God.

    I suggest that “infinite” is not only a meaningless term in the context of understanding God, but that it is too dangerous of a term to throw around in this discussion, let alone to impose on God. Its presence invites painful disagreement and abuse. The combination of its character-defining inclusion together with the utter impossibility of it’s being defined in any meaningful way invites abuse by those who would use it to assert extremest definitions and those who would use their idiosyncratic definition of the term as a vehicle of authoritarian control over those who are not comfortable with ambiguity especially in regard to foundational components in their understanding of their world.

    At least the term “wholly other” admits by it’s very nature that it cannot be defined, and requires those who would use the term to avoid any attempt at definition and thus to tolerate the overt ambiguity which the term makes explicit.

  2. Just to make it interesting…

    It can be mathematically proven that there are different infinities. For example, there are more real numbers than integers – and both are infinite.

  3. As I was reading through the argument against propositional logic, with its warnings against rationalizing a God who is wholly other, the Incarnation immediately came to mind. So, I was glad to see that the author did mention it, but disappointed that it was only in passing and as an additional complication.

    It is the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ that throws a monkey wrench into notions of vague spirituality. God becomes a concrete reality when the Word becomes flesh. And suddenly, God becomes someone we CAN understand in humans terms and yes, with propositional logic. The Incarnation presents a problem with Christianity, but is also its greatest blessing and strength.

    Overall, I would agree with the proposition of the posting that we all too often try to wrap God up into a neat tidy logical box that we can then try to control and use for our own benefit. But, I’d have to conclude that the overall problem is more about the misuse of logic than its use. That is, a matter of sin, not logic.

  4. Doug,

    That is really the heart of the problem I mentioned above: we are improperly transposing mathematical properties into a theological discussion. God is not a mathematical abstraction, not provable by theorem, and God cannot be described, limited or de-limited by mathematical descriptors. The term “infinity” in the discussion of God is metaphorical at best – but so many have seized upon the term as an absolute definition, and then added to it their own twist in the form of a finite definition of infinitude.

    For example: God is “X” but infinitely so. To be more specific, some positive ways the church has applied the term include: God is powerful, but infinitely so; God exists, but not just now, but from and into infinity; God is knowledgeable, but infinitely so; God is present, not just here and now but everywhere and everywhen, into infinity; God loves us, but in an infinitely more profound way than a human can love; God forgives us not just once, but an infinite number of times; God forgives us, not just in the way that we can forgive each other, but in an infinitely more profound way than we do, etc.

    More negatively, recall, be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. As we cannot achieve God’s infinitude of perfection and grace, then each and every human is therefore destined to be a depraved sinner, an abysmal failure, and an eternal supplicant to God’s benevolent mercy. That is pure abuse, and in the hands of capable pastors, a tool in the service of the very worst kind of emotional and spiritual manipulation.

    The very notions of infinitude and perfection deny balance, the kind of balance which Jesus achieved for God in taking on the limitations of human form. Then we could abandon the spiritual limitations of infinitude and perfection, because with the incarnation we became the children and the friends of God. And the notion of “perfection” became understandable and visible in human terms in the life and teaching of Jesus. We no longer had to worry over what the definition of “wholly other” was, because God became something wholly “with us”.

    The only reason I can think as to why the church elected to pick up the burdens of perfection is that with it, certain men gained and secured power over others.

  5. I feel like I should clarify one thing before I respond: The post was intended to be very ironic.

    As to the use of the word “infinite”: the difficulty for us to establish a specific meaning to the word and the possibility that it might be taken in ways that are uncomfortable or unpleasant is precisely the point. If we could establish a definite meaning for it, then the infinite wouldn’t be so infinite. It would be limited and controllable. Any attempt to speak of God is, as you said, metaphorical. I’m not sure that I see a huge problem in relying on one such metaphor as infinitude. For me, the term “infinite” provides an opening up of our understandings of God to go well beyond what we assume. It is, as one friend likes to say, “taking God out of any box.” I’m not sure how such thinking is imposing anything on God as much as it is forcing us to expand our thinking–much like John did in his second comment.

    As to the invitation to disagreement and violence, I’m not sure how one can speak of God (if such a thing is possible) without opening the door for disagreement and abuse. People will argue. It’s simply going to happen. And it happens the most over religion and politics. That’s why such topics are avoided at the table–particularly at the Lord’s Table.

  6. Religion is full of books and blogs and sermons and study groups discussing the the nature and scope of God. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life reading those books and taking those classes, and laying awake at night trying to conceive of the inconceivable. In the recent past, though, I’ve declared myself done. Done supposing. Done trying to put it all into words. I’m pretty sure that whatever I believe is in part wrong. Maybe I have it completely wrong (Lord knows some folks have told me I do). But I’ve grown to be comfortable with not knowing.

  7. Just a couple of things:

    (1) Propositional logic, philosophically speaking, always runs into problems with the infinite. The problem for Christians in relationship to the infinite is that we use our lack of knowledge to make overly sure proclamations, rather than be led to a sense of humility. Pace John, the infinite “nature” of God should actually lead us to be less abusive of others, because it highlights our lack of knowledge. Therefore we should resist making overly confident truth claims, metaphorical or metaphysical or otherwise. So far as I can tell, the most dangerous people — religious and otherwise — are those who claim to have an overly sure grasp of God’s infinity. This is where we run into the problems John mentioned. But the notion of God’s infinity is actually supposed to prevent this, rather than the other way around. That is why the Bible talks about idols so much. From a Christian perspective, propositional logic always runs into problems of infinity, and the Christian response should be one of humility.

    (2) In terms of the accessibility of the wholly other via the incarnation, I tend to gravitate toward theologians who remind us that God is concealed even at the site of revelation. Here, as Aquinas put it, the highest human knowledge of God is to know that we don’t know God (I am thinking especially of Moses hiding his face in the cleft of the rock, or perhaps the transfiguration of Christ). As soon as the wholly other becomes wholly accessible, Christianity becomes quite boring.

    And we should all remember Jean-Luc Marion’s prescient advice: every theological essay demands forgiveness in every sense of the term. Which seems to me much of Matt’s point.

  8. Not to sound too pedantic, but I think that the problem with “propositional logic” on display here is really a problem with the semantics of propositions in natural language, rather than with logic per se. First-order propositional logic is what it is, which is really a branch of mathematics. We can prove many things about it, and there are many things about it that we are not able to prove, at least not yet. But it doesn’t have anything obvious to do with God except under some interpretation or other that relates it to propositions in natural language, and there we are into semantics.

    That said, some of the great logicians found themselves prone to a kind of mysticism or rarefied belief in God. Brouwer was a full-blown mystic of a sort, and Godel thought he had a version of the ontological proof that worked.

    I say all this as a sympathetic Christian who also used to teach and study logic. I am fond of trying to be precise about just where the problem lies.

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