Posts filed under ‘Faith and Reason’
There is a “warfare thesis” of science and religion that says that the two are fundamentally at war with each other. Sam Harris comes to mind as a quite vocal proponent of this thesis.
While I don’t want to dismiss the arguments of such people out of hand, it seems to me that the testimony of history is against them. The relationship of science and religion is a much more complex one. Has there been conflict? Yes, of course, just as there has been conflict within religion itself – and within science.
But science and religion have also nourished each other. The belief in a Creator gave many people the necessary drive to find uniform principles behind seemingly non-uniform events in the universe, and the resulting scientific discoveries have challenged them to rethink some of their religious understandings.
Religious motives have led to science, and science has reshaped religion.
20th-century writer C. S. Lewis thought that God ought to be described within the confines of generally accepted logic. Said he,
“His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God. That’s C. S. Lewis’ position.
Michel de Montaigne, whom I’m currently reading and who was a French politician and famous essayist from the 16th century, had another take on this. He thought that talking about what God can or cannot do based on what we perceive to be nonsensical statements about God would mean to confine Him to the imperfections of our language.
“It has always seemed to me,” said Montaigne, “that certain expressions are too imprudent and irreverent for a Christian: ‘God cannot die’; ‘God cannot change his mind’; ‘God cannot do this or cannot do that’. I find it unacceptable that the power of God should be limited in this way by the rules of human language; these propositions offer an appearance of truth, but it ought to be expressed more reverently and more devoutly. Our speech, like everything else, has its defects and weaknesses. Most of the world’s squabbles are occasioned by grammar!”
(This is a continuation from my last post.)
I revel in human culture, art, education, and philosophy. I consider them good things and can rationally defend why I believe them to be good and worthwhile pursuits. But if, like a child, you keep asking the question “Why?” to every one of my reasons, I will eventually come to a point where I can’t give you any more ultimate reason.
And then you can begin building a case against human culture, art, education, and philosophy, and I have to concede that it might actually be better if our culture, art, education, and philosophy had never come into existence. In fact, I might concede that it would be better if the entire human race did not exist, and that the embracing of my own existence is already a radically subjective step that makes the claim to be rationally objective a complete laughing matter.
For the several thousand species on this planet that we have annihilated, it would certainly have been better if the human race had been wiped out a long time ago, and for the many endangered species now, our annihilation would be the best thing that can happen to them. Why should our self-interest count and not theirs? Many of those species feel pain in a similar way that we do. They have the strong instinct for survival just as much as we do.
What is rationally objective about our continuing existence on this planet? And if we can’t even get beyond a 50% probability about the validity of our own existence, how can we claim to have certainty about anything else?
The most rationally objective thing to do might therefore be to commit suicide. You literally—absolutely literally—cease being human if you only defend what can be objectively defended, because you cannot even defend objectively why you should be allowed to take another breath. Existence equals subjectivity, unless you happen to be God.
But I do not commit suicide. I continue existing and deeply appreciating my existence. I continue to appreciate culture and the arts, I continue to educate myself and others, I continue to engage in philosophy and existential questions, I continue subjectively placing human beings above other species, and by doing so I gain a meaningful life. But I don’t gain certainty.
P.S.: I think I need to slightly correct my statement: “And if we can’t even get beyond a 50% probability about the validity of our own existence, how can we claim to have certainty about anything else?” I can actually have more certainty about other things, but not about things that I am more passionate about. In many cases, the more particular, mundane the thing is I believe in, the more certain I can be of it; and the more universal, meaningful the thing is I believe in, the less certain I can be of it.
For example, I am very certain that the desk in front of me is made of wood. But so what? I’m not passionate about that belief, though I am very certain of it. Like I said above, however, I am not at all certain that I have an objective right to exist on this planet, but I feel extremely passionate about this right.
Should we be passionate about beliefs only to the extent that we are certain of them?
I admit, being passionate in direct proportion to my certainty sounds very sensible on the surface—and since I’m fairly logically minded, I do, in fact, often find myself being passionate to the extent that I am certain of something. But I’m beginning to see that this common-sense view ignores some important aspects.
In the beginning of his Critique of Pure Reason (maybe better translated as Analysis of Pure Reason, by the way), Kant observes that our reason has this peculiar fate: It is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.
1. Reason is driven by questions it cannot ignore.
2. Reason alone can’t answer them.
To put it a different way: Some of the most important issues for human beings are precisely those things that evade certainty, things that, both rationally and empirically speaking, might even be below a 50% probability. And yet to turn off all passion in these areas only because of a lack of certainty would be to cease being human.
I’ll expound on that rather provocative last statement in my next post.
I went through a good chunk of the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas the past two weeks.
There are many admirable sections in this pivotal work, such as his discussion of faith and reason. Many topics are treated in a clear and succinct manner, neither ignoring important objectives nor belaboring his points too much.
But when Aquinas starts discussing the Trinity, it’s a different matter. I remember thinking: “OK, now he’s done with the Trinity and he’ll move on to another topic.” But no, he went on. And I felt like that over and over again.
I’m sure Aquinas thought it necessary to address what he considered various misunderstandings and wrong descriptions of the Trinity, but to me it seemed like he was talking the whole concept of the Trinity to death.
Perhaps the Eastern Orthodox Church displayed more wisdom in this regard by stressing that the Trinity is a mystery that’s supposed to move us, not an invitation for endless definitions of how exactly the three Persons of the Trinity relate to each other and what words are appropriate to describe them.
Many people know C. S. Lewis as probably the greatest Christian apologist to date. Fewer people know that, at least in his later years, Lewis found the whole topic of apologetics rather wearing. Said he in a letter from June 18, 1956, which I read a few weeks ago:
I envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for one’s own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it. It is particularly tormenting when those who were converted by my books begin to relapse and raise new difficulties.
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.