Sunday, August 23, 2009

Psychologist Thomas Szasz criticizes Lewis's trilemma

But it doesn't seem to me that Szasz's "third alternative" isn't just the liar option.


philip m said...

It seems he means something like "hyperbole." It would be like if I tried to act like Donald Trump because I wanted to be rich or because I respected Donald Trump. Only Jesus acted like God because of his dedication or something.

Jason Pratt said...

Some salient quote from Dr. Szasz's article:

"Whether or not the speaker believes his delusion to be true is irrelevant. The simplest, most parsimonious explanation for his speech act is that he is lying."

"When [a person] impersonates another for economic gain, defrauding others in the process, we call his behavior 'identity theft.' We treat him as a criminal, guilty of committing fraud, not as a lunatic harboring false beliefs. When, however, an individual impersonates say, Jesus, we refuse to see the self-evident method in his madness, the desire to gain existential rather economic advantage, and dismiss his conduct as 'meaningless delusion.' I submit that we ought to view such behavior as a type of 'existential identity theft.'"

"The man who says he is a poached egg is a liar, and that ought to be the end of the matter, for theology, philosophy, and psychiatry alike."

Looks to me like the "obvious third choice" (fourth choice rather) being proffered here, is that Jesus was committing "identity theft", "lying" ("the simplest, most parsimonious" description), "deluding" people (whether himself or other people is irrelevant) "for existential gain".

So: first option, Son of God; second option, insane; third option, intentional liar; fourth option, intentional liar. Therefore Lewis was incompetent for not providing the obvious "third" option. ... ... wait...

Trying again: first choice, accept Jesus as being what he claimed to be; second choice, reject Jesus as insane; third choice, reject Jesus as a liar; fourth choice, reject Jesus as a liar. Therefore Lewis was incompetent for not providing the obvious "third" choice. ... ... wait...

One more time. Lewis Option 1: Jesus was a good man who should be accepted as a good teacher to follow, who also taught hard and unique truths about himself and his authority. Lewis Option 2: Jesus taught insanely foolish things about himself and his authority, and so should be disregarded as a good teacher to follow, even if ethically he was still a good man and managed to teach some good things along the way. Lewis Option 3: Jesus taught deceivingly false things about himself and his own authority, and so should be condemned as an evil man despite any good things he happened to also teach along the way. Lewis Option 4: Jesus was a good man who should be accepted and followed as a good teacher despite the fact that he taught either foolishly insane or misleadingly evil things about himself and his own authority. (This is what Lewis called "patronizing nonsense about him", and which Lewis recommended rejecting for one of the other three options.)

Dr. Szasz goes with option 5: Jesus taught foolish or actively misleading things about himself and his own authority (whether he was insane is irrelevant, whether he was evil is irrelevant, whatever else he happened to be teaching is irrelevant) and so should be ignored rather than accepted and followed as a good teacher (much less accepted as what he taught that people should accept himself as). Therefore Lewis is incompetent for not mentioning this obvious option and his trilemma fails.

Or something.

To be honest, I think Dr. Szasz' crusade here is against people who would forcibly restrain other people for engaging in existential identity theft, which he considers neither insane, nor harmful to other people so long as they just ignore the thief. Lewis is targeted as being someone who would forcibly restrain (or even kill) such existential identity thieves as harmful, rather than just ignoring them.

That's about the extent of Dr. Szasz' interest in Lewis' trilemma: he thinks Lewis is a convenient example of promoting the forcible rejection of existential identity thieves, depriving those thieves of their freedom (in various forcible ways). Beyond that, he has no interest in or understanding of what Lewis was actually doing (aside from a shallow and-so-Lewis’-theistic-apologetic-also-fails result. {wry g})


philip m said...


The hyperbole thing comes from this:

". . .we might say that the man in Nazareth 2000 years ago who said he is the Son of God was a god-obsessed Jew, using a figurative language fashionable at the time, expressing and conveying a meaning to himself and others the exact signification of which we have no way of recapturing."

'Liar' might indicate Jesus had some sort of constant intention to make others believe something which was false, which might be less descriptive than 'hyperbole' in the case he had some sort of inward intent not necessarily identical to that of lying.

Jason Pratt said...

Except that Dr. Szasz doesn't treat this behavior as being mere hyperbole anywhere else in his article. He explicitly and repeatedly treats it as lying for personal gain. Existential personal gain rather than economic personal gain, but still lying for personal gain.

Which is why his option is for other people (to whom this liar is lying for his own personal gain) should just ignore the liar. Not believe him (with adjustments for poetic hyperbole or otherwise), and not deprive the poor man of his freedom in various ways like the tyrannical savages we are (which is really the thrust of his criticism: these people shouldn't be locked up in insane asylums or otherwise forcibly restrained, doctors are cruelly earning salaries for doing so, etc. They should just be ignored and allowed to go about their own private business.)

Lewis' trilemma is aimed, on the other hand, at people who want to accept Jesus as a good teacher; Lewis' argument is that this acceptance is ridiculous unless Jesus is also Who he is teaching that he is. There are plenty of other teachers out there to follow who aren't making those kinds of claims about themselves and their own authority.


Gordon Knight said...

For what its worth, I never thought the Liar, lunatic, lord argument was very good. A key premise of the argument is that one accepts all (or at least all significant) Gospel stories about Jesus. Someone like Bultmann, or the Jesus Seminar people would deny this.

I think most who think of Jesus as only moral teacher accept the Bultmann et al. line, so the argument is not very persuasive to its intended audience.

Jason Pratt said...


True, but the dissension of the Bultmannian school (which revived an older line of dissension going back at least as far as Keim) actually counts as fitting the trilemma in a backhanded way: Jesus was clearly a sane and respectable moralist who wouldn't have made those claims about himself; the claims had to have been made by followers decades afterward, irresponsibly promoting him up to Godhood (which the 'real' Jesus would never have tolerated).

Admittedly, the dilemma is aimed at people who for one reason or another consider the data to be reliable, at least as to teaching, if not as to miracles--another Bultmannian criteria is that since miracles cannot be true or cannot be historically accepted, the miracles had to have been invented by subsequent followers, too.

Once miracle stories are nixed as inventions (because we cannot accept that the miracles really happened), and once the huge authority claims are nixed as inventions (because Jesus was obviously sane and respectable and so wouldn't have made those claims), then we have a 'core' historical Jesus left who, hey, is a sane, respectable moralist who doesn't make hugely affrontive authority/identity claims (or do miracles either)!

This is hardly getting around the trilemma, though. It's applying the trilemma principles in reverse against the data. Keim was actually quite explicit about it. (So much so that when I read about it, in another context, I wondered if Lewis hadn't read Keim and gotten the idea from him!)

There are other reasons to be sceptical of the accuracy of the data, at least in theory, of course. But this was the classical Enlightenment move, revived and popularized by Bultmann after suffering heavily from detailed conservative, moderate and even liberal criticism in the late 19th and early 20th century


The Family said...

Quoting Jason:
To be honest, I think Dr. Szasz' crusade here is against people who would forcibly restrain other people for engaging in existential identity theft, which he considers neither insane, nor harmful to other people so long as they just ignore the thief. Lewis is targeted as being someone who would forcibly restrain (or even kill) such existential identity thieves as harmful, rather than just ignoring them.

Yes, exactly.

Szasz here is trying to promote peacefully ignoring those with delusions of grandeur, rather than imprisoning them, institutionalizing them, or, in Jesus' case, killing him. This is part if Szasz's main thrust, one of accusing our society of violently discriminating against mental illness, in part, he says elsewhere, just by calling it an illness at all.

Modern science's falsification of Szasz's premises aside, Szasz is not really attacking the historical Jesus at all here, just those who discriminate against those who claim to be God (or Jesus) due to delusions of grandeur, something that that he would rather label 'existential identity theft'.

Gordon Knight said...

I think you are probably right, Jason. Though with contemporary biblical scholarship the situation is more complex.

I thought it was interesting that in the Jesus Seminar book about the acts of Jesus, Jesus' healing was affirmed but only to the extent that the diseases cured were psychosomatic (How do they know this?)

I should say I did not read the book, just glanced at part of it it in a bookstore snd that claim just caught my eye.