Is Martin Freeman Lucy Liu? (and other theological questions)

CumberLiu In the US a Christian college is sanctioning a member of its staff who asserted that Islam worships the same god as Christianity. Apparently this is a controversial notion and at odds with the college’s official doctrine. Now for an atheist the argument is a bit like asking whether Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny lee-Miller both play the character called Sherlock Holmes on television. Now that is a really fun argument to have but not one likely to get you sacked from your job if you take the wrong position. However, for people who are followers of the so-called Abrahamic religions this can be an important question.

Interestingly, it is a debate that is burning away over at Vox Day’s blog

Historically we know that Judaism predates Christianity and Islam. We know Christianity is rooted in Judaic tradition with a bunch of syncretic elements from Roman society. We know that Islam then drew on both Judaism and Christianity and religious elements in the region (which in turn probably had common roots as Judaism). Yet this isn’t a question that can be really resolved by tracking the histories of the religions. Anthropological or folkloric analysis isn’t going to settle the matter because the question pertains to the nature of a divine being.

The question becomes even more important in theocratic societies were one religion is favored or even in more secular societies were membership of a given religion is important for some sub-group. Historically it has mattered to minority religious groups whether they are perceived as heretics (members of the same religion incorrectly worshiping the same god) or heathens (worshiping false gods). For monotheistic religions it also raises the question of who a given group are worshiping if not god? To accept that it is possible for some other person to have genuine faith in a being that does not exist can itself be challenging to a believer in so far as it implies a possibility that they may be making the same mistake. Consequently, a more theologically extreme response would be to see member of another religion as not just worshiping god incorrectly but actually worshiping some other supernatural being. Hence for some more extreme sections of Christianity the claim that Muslims do not worship the same god as Christians is part of a claim that Islam is somehow satanic.

What can logical reasoning tell us? Well identity and error about identity is something that can be examined systematically. For this purpose consider three identities:
1. Theodore Beale
2. Vox Day
3. Jeffro Johnson
Now in reality we know that Theodore Beale is the real name of Vox Day and that Vox Day is his nom-de-plume. Jeffro Johnson is a blogger at Castalia House, the publishing firm run by Theodore Beale. None of these people are god or satan (as far as I’m aware).

Now imagine two people: Fred and Wilma. Both Fred and Wilma believe that they owe Vox Day $5. Perhaps they bought a book from him and forgot to pay him. Wilma though is under a misapprehension, she thinks that ‘Vox Day’ is a pseudonym for ‘Jeffro Johnson’. Both Wilma and Fred have met Vox Day (presumably when they each got a book from him).
Fred believes: 1. he owes Vox Day $5, 2. that Vox Day is Theodore Beale and that therefore 3. he owes Theodore Beale $5
Wilma believes: 1. she owes Vox Day $5 2. that Vox Day is Jeffro Johnson and that therefore 3. she owes Jeffro Johnson $5

Now consider Pebbles and Bam-Bam. Pebbles borrowed $5 from Theodore Beale and Bam-Bam borrowed $5 from Jeffro Johnson. Pebbles also believes that Vox Day is the pseudonym of Theodore Beale and Bam-Bam has made the same mistake as Wilma and believes that Vox Day is a pseudonym of Jeffro Johnson.

Now note that Fred, Wilma, Pebbles and Bam-Bam all believe that they owe Vox Day $5. However of those four people only Bam-Bam believes that they owe money to a DIFFERENT person. Wilma’s error is intrinsically different to Bam-Bam’s. To see that consider what happens if Jeffro Johnson and Theodore Beale meet Wilma and Bam-Bam. In that scenario Bam-Bam gives $5 to Jeffro and Wilma gives $5 to Theodore and both of them have given their money to the right person.

Does this help? A bit but not enough. What it shows is that there is a difference between two people who have some sort of relationship to a third person but believe different facts about that person’s identity (scenario 1) and two people who have a relationships with two different people but who refer to them as if they were one common person (scenario 2). So for some followers of Abrahamic religions the assumption is scenario 1 (everybody is worshiping the same god but they disagree on what that god is like) and for Vox Day and Wheaton College the assumption is scenario 2 (names etc may be similar, holy books may even assert commonality of one kind or another but that is an error).

Now if you’ve read this far you may be curious why I even care. Well, what I find fascinating is what scenario 2 implies – it implies that it is possible to inadvertently worship the wrong god i.e. not just worship a god incorrectly or believe incorrect things about that god but actually worship a different god than the one you *think* you are worshiping. Logically if this true for Muslims (according to Wheaton College doctrine) then it is true universally. Anybody could be worshiping the wrong god, rather like dialing the wrong phone number or using the wrong IP address for your prayers.

At Vox Day’s blog the common defense of the idea that the god of Islam is different to the god of Christianity is to cite different qualities of the two gods. Unfortunately that by itself can’t distinguish between scenario 1 and scenario 2 as there isn’t an empirical way we can resolve whether we are looking at incorrect beliefs about the same person or an incorrect belief that two different people are the same person. For example I believe Vox Day is not a very good editor and other people think he is a really good editor that is not because I’m actually talking about a different Vox day who is a bad editor and we can resolve doubt about that because Vox Day is a specific person who has some properties that are more important for establishing his identity than others (i.e. he has only one body and that body is only ever in one spot at a time and has a continuous history etc etc). It is hard to say the same thing about a god.

Except…there is one theological scheme in which a god has a intrinsic identity beyond traditions and myths or forms of worship or specific names. In the tradition of Plato-Aristotle-Mamiodes-Ibn Rushd-Thomas Aquinas, god is a necessary being and a singular one. That is, if you accept all that stuff (which I don’t but Vox Day does) god is a not an arbitrary bunch of qualities and if your god ticks enough boxes it is the same god as your coreligionists but rather god is a very specific logical consequence of reality whose existence can be inferred. Do some Muslims believe in an Aristotelean god? Sure and famously so. Do all Muslims? Probably not because it is pretty esoteric but then all Christians don’t believe in that kind of god either. What to do! Does this mean we can slice the Abrahamic world (and indeed classic world) into two camps and that one (quite small but philosophical) camp believes in one god and the other (much larger and less philosophical) believe in another?

Safe to say I’m not going to resolve that question. More importantly (to me anyway) the right response EVEN IF YOU ARE A BELIEVER is to assert that the question is unresolvable, neither faith nor theology can answer the question and logic can only point out the flaws in the nature of the question. Consequently such arguments naturally tend to more passionate versions of the same debate atheists would have i.e. does Martin Freeman play the same person on television as Lucy Liu?

So why even bother, particularly if it doesn’t involve arguing about nothing in a pub? Historically the situation was quite different. A medieval pope (for example) would regard themselves as the god-appointed arbiter of the correct way of worshiping the one true god. Consequently anybody attempting to worship that god definitely came under his jurisdiction (from his point of view). For a pope taking a inclusive view (scenario 1) made the most political sense and so it was better to label people heretics rather than heathens.

In western societies persecuting heretics tends to get frowned upon (except at Wheaton College it seems) but in an increasingly secular world there is also an advantage of a kind for religions to find common cause. Consequently the Catholic Church is less likely to call people ‘heretics’ and even reach out to Judaism and Islam. However for nationalist who wish to use Christianity as an in-group marker Islam is more likely to be portrayed as an intrinsic enemy and consequently the notion that it is really just another variation on the same theme is an uncomfortable one. In addition to this the more reactionary form of Christianity advocated tends to have more in common doctrinally with conservative Islam than more liberal forms of Christianity (particularly in terms of women and sexuality). So with a strong incentive to emphasize differences the end result is an odd revival of an old debate.

ETA: Malcolm the cynic, who has commented here on more than occasion has mounted a spirited and well argued defense of the notion that Islam and Christianity worship the same God, in the comments at Vox Day’s blog. He links to a piece by Edward Feser and I find I agree with a lot of it (only up to a point because really it is all various forms of poppycock). Interestingly Feser takes a stance which suggest that while Muslims worship the same god as Christians, Mormons do not. Which, well, I don’t know – seems all a bit like a heated fandom discussion where everybody gets terribly fractious and exclusionary.

Incidentally Vox gets his logic a bit backwards at one point in the thread trying to explain how something illogical is not necessarily false – which is the closest I’ve ever come to having the urge to comment there.

78. VD January 07, 2016 4:59 PM

something that is illogical must be false.

No. As Ingot pointed out, it may be false. Or an axiom upon which the syllogism is correctly built is incorrect.

Wrong example – if we have to stick with syllogism that is how a structurally correct syllogism (i.e. something ‘logical’) is not neccesarily true (e.g. All Vox Days are immortal, Ted Beale is a Vox Day, therefore Ted Beale is immortal <- logical but false). What he needs to use is an example of an incorrectly formed syllogism that leads to a coincidentally true conclusion (e.g. All Vox Days are mortal, Ted Beale is mortal, therefore Ted Beale is a Vox Day <- bad, wrong logic but the conclusion is still true as are each part of the syllogism taken separately).

I’ll shut up now.

8 thoughts on “Is Martin Freeman Lucy Liu? (and other theological questions)

  1. When I saw the snippet “spirited and well-argued defense” and the names Freeman and Lucy Liu I swear I thought you were going to link to the post I wrote where I argued that Lucy Liu wasn’t a good Watson but Martin Freeman was!

    I’m such a nerd.

    (BTW, Lucy Liu is a very good actor but her character is NOT WATSON. Freeman is the best Watson of all time.)


    1. 🙂 if it had been a different venue I might have offered some more overt support for your comments (which were well argued)…but having an atheist SJW agree with you would probably have been the exact opposite of helping. Also given I don’t think either YHWH/Eloi/Jehovah/The Lord or Allah actually exist the question of whether they are the same god is effectively a very different one (hence Liu v Freeman). The Feser piece was interesting too.

      On that issue, I’d agree that Liu is further from the core Watson than Freeman but arguably a more interesting character. However, some of that is due to the classic UK v US TV writing approach – Liu gets more episodes to be drawn as a character whereas Freeman is done in broad strokes.

      Haven’t seen the Abominable Bride yet – did read your review.


      1. Thank you for the compliments.

        Perhaps you’ll like the episode more than me. Most people seemed to. I thought it was riddled with issues that went deeper than my political preferences, though, for whatever that’s worth..

        As for Liu vs. Freeman…Martin Freeman is in my top three favorite actors list, along with the unbelievably underrated Walton Goggins and…maybe Robert Downey Jr.? Benedict Cumberbatch? The third spot is in flux. So that’s another reason I love Freeman’s Watson – Liu is good, but Martin Freeman is a brilliant actor. His scene at the end of “The Reichenbach Fall” is one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen, in anything.

        I just can’t watch “Elementary”. It’s no fault of the actors, who are quite good. Watching Liu pretend to be Watson when she’s clearly a different character just rankles me. That aside, I don’t find the show offensive. I don’t think people who like it necessarily have poor taste; it’s a fine show, and Johnny Lee Miller is a very good Holmes. It just grates on me.


        1. I don’t watch Elementary much. I agree that Freeman does catch the spirit of the Dr Watson from the original stories (not a plodder, actually quite bright but just doesn’t think the same way as Holmes and lets himself get pushed around by Holmes because he likes being in Holmes’s company). Liu’s Watson is more a commentary on the flaws in the Homes/Watson relationship as originally portrayed. So yes, definitely a different take on the character and (intentionally) further from the original than the Moffat/Freeman version.


  2. But isn’t the thomist conception of God a title or funktion, rather than a name. People may agree that the highest office in USA is the President of the United States. Among those who agree that Barack Obama is that President, there may be very different descriptions of him (republicans and democrats). There may also be persons who, for whatever reasons, claimes that Mitt Romney is that President (not that he really won, but rather that he aktually is in the white house now). Then there might be people who believe the Queen of England is the person aktually ruling the USA. And of course also a-presidentists, who don’t believe any such office exists. All those disagrements are of a different kind, but they may be confused with each other.


    1. Sort of. For example the President of the USA is a necessary outcome of the constitutional set up of the USA. However it is set up in such a way that beings of different identities can be the President. The Thomistic god is a necessary outcome of reality AND unique. So in that scheme any reference to god is a reference to that being. It is the only identity that can be attached to a reference to god.

      So god in this sense is like a mathematical entity. People may differ as to what properties that entity have but the reference is to that entity.

      e.g. 4y-7= 25.
      I solve the equation for y incorrectly and work out (25-7)/4=4.5. So I think y is a decimal number equal to 9/2.
      You solve it correctly and think that y is 8 an even number.
      The reference in both cases is the same and we can say that I am wrong and that you are correct. However within the set up of that equation, y is undeniably unique.


  3. For me, the key observation is the one about using “God” as a tribal identifier. As these identifiers need to be very specific (so that non-members can be identified easily and burnt at the stake), it doesn’t surprise me that certain branches of Christianity would adopt a very prescriptive definition of God that would almost automatically exclude followers of Islam. It would exclude me too, and, to be honest, I’m pretty happy about that.


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