Archive for April 23, 2009
I’ve just read Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward and thought it a badly-needed book for our times. There were also several passages that I found personally helpful on my journey of faith and reason, which is certainly not one without tension. Here’s a passage that is one of the best summaries of the issue of God’s existence I’ve ever read (though that might be due to where I’m at in my inner journey at the moment, and I might view the passage differently a few years down the road):
There is a particular view of the history of European philosophy that has almost become standard, but which is a misleading myth. That is that everybody used to accept that there were ‘proofs for God’. The first cause argument (the universe must have a first cause) and the argument from design (design in the universe shows that there must be a designer) were supposed to prove that there must be a God. But then along came Immanuel Kant, who disproved all these proofs. After that, belief in God had no rational basis and had to become a rationally unjustifiable leap of faith (where ‘faith’ means belief without any evidence).
This view of the history of philosophy is skewed in a number of ways. First of all, it was never generally thought that, by starting only with the observable facts of the physical world, anyone could demonstrate that there has to be an intelligent first cause outside of the universe. That would make God little more than an inference from observed facts, an absentee creator who was never actually present or experienced.
As a matter of historical fact, the main philosophical arguments derived largely from Plato and Aristotle, whose concern was not with some sort of inference from observed reality to something else. It was with the question of what the nature and character of observed reality was. In Plato’s case, his arguments (or many of them) were intended to show that the observed world can be seen by reflective enquiry to be a world of appearances. The underlying reality can be known by the mind, by intellectually investigation, and ultimately by a vision of the Good, as the true reality of which the material world is an appearance. Philosophical argument was basically ‘dialectic’ – the presentation and re-presentation of limited perspectives on the world that might lead to distinguishing reality from appearance, and discerning that the inner character of reality is mental or spiritual. Plato does not ask us to infer an unseen designer. He tries to get us, through intense reflective argument, to see the world as appearance, the manifestation, of a deeper spiritual reality that is akin to human consciousness, but of purer and more perfect goodness and beauty.
When Immanuel Kant came along, he did set out to undermine a specific set of rationalistic arguments propounded by the philosophers Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff. He did say that he set out to undermine knowledge in order to make room for ‘faith’. But his whole critical philosophy was written as an attempt to set faith a firm intellectual foundation, not to offer it as an alternative to intellectual thought.
A central part of Kant’s philosophy was the attempt to show that reason leads to unavoidable contradictions when it tries to take observed reality as the true reality, as reality-in-itself. Only when you have, in this way, pushed reason to its limits can you see that reality must be something more than the empirical and observable, more than the world of Newtonian physics.
Faith, for Kant, was practical commitment made in areas where theoretical knowledge is impossible, but where there is still a pressure to make a rational choice. To make his case, he had to show that reason has its limits, and that it is necessary to make reasonable decisions in areas that go beyond those limits. For him, faith – faith in God, in moral freedom, and in the possibility of moral fulfillment (‘happiness in accordance with virtue’) – is supremely reasonable. It is not a leap in the dark. It is the use of reason beyond the limits of empirical verification.
Kant was, in fact, not so far from Plato. Kant did not speak of a vision of the Good because he was very suspicious, unduly suspicious perhaps, of claims to personal experience of God. But Kant did say that it was not optional but absolutely necessary to posit a rational and moral basis of the world, to posit the existence of the Supreme Good.
For Kant, all ultimate worldviews (all systems of transcendent metaphysics, as he would have said) are unverifiable. Yet it is supremely reasonable to have one, for we must base our practical life-commitments on something, on the best we can manage as human beings. That best, for Kant, was the postulate of a supremely good and wise God, on whom the rationality of the world and of human thought, and the reasonableness and obligatoriness of morality, could be founded. We have to go beyond the evidence, for reason itself compels us to do so.
You might say that it is deeply rational to have an ultimate worldview, but the fundamental beliefs of a such a view cannot be based on any more basic evidence, for there is nothing more basic. How then can we choose? For Kant, we must choose the view that best supports our basic belief in the importance of reason, truth, and objective standards of beauty and goodness. This is a reasonable faith, but it is founded on a serious moral commitment that it is logically possible to reject.
So the history of European philosophy is not really a story of moving from proofs of God to irrational faith. It is rather a story of clarification of the methods and limits of science (which Plato was unclear about, and Aristotle was partly wrong about); and of the basis of our most general worldviews in the sorts of practical commitment, the ways of life and moral orientation, that make possible distinctive human activities like science, morality and religion.
Whatever all this is, it is not the ending of rational thought by blind acceptance of some absolute authority. When Kant spoke of faith, he was absolutely not thinking of blind acceptance of authority. He called that ‘heteronomy’, subjecting your will to the will of another. In its place he called for ‘autonomy’ – daring to think for yourself, even about matters said to be revealed by God. Faith was in human reason and goodness, seen as founded on an ultimate reason and goodness, rooted in the nature of things.