Friday, March 14, 2008

Faith and "logic", a follow-up

An old high school friend, and one for whom I have a great deal of respect, responded to a previous post. He writes:

You're right that we cannot avoid commitment to a large set of beliefs not subject to logical or abstractly rational proof. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a substantive difference between, on the one hand, those beliefs that we are compelled to adopt because they are the necessary preconditions of practical activity or rational discourse, and, on the other, those beliefs that we may endorse, repudiate, or blithely ignore according to our contingent circumstances and inclinations.

That my friend exists is a belief of the first class; that I will, upon my death, find myself somewhere in the Christian afterworld is a belief of the second class. The truth-status of the first class entails nothing about members of the second class, which must in each case be evaluated on their own merits. You recognize this, of course, but I would nevertheless maintain that it is disingenuous of you to conflate my faith in the persistent stability of the ground beneath my feet with your faith in the Resurrection.


Lichanos made essentially the same point. I'm afraid I may have too casually cast aside his remark.

My original point was that some faith is required to live; but this fact is less important than the degree to which it is necessary. In retrospect, this is little more than affirming that man must believe in something. Again, true, but probably beside the point. Which is now elsewhere.

My intention is not to smear non-believers as believers, merely to point out that belief itself isn't inherently illogical; it depends on its object.

You recognize this, of course, but I would nevertheless maintain that it is disingenuous of you to conflate my faith in the persistent stability of the ground beneath my feet with your faith in the Resurrection.

And yet, to me, the difference is minute. I started to capitulate on this one, but I'm afraid that won't do. Now, I am not a moral relativist, of course, and so I cannot pretend that what is true for you is false for myself, and vice versa. I can only insist that I profess as much assurance in the Resurrection as I have in the stability of the ground on which I walk.

G. K. Chesterton, who has been a prodigious influence on my thought, tried to capture this in the third chapter of Orthodoxy:

That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, "Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?" The young sceptic says, "I have a right to think for myself." But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, "I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all."

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed.

Now, I do not insist that you believe in the truth professed by the Catholic Church if "logic" dictates that you do otherwise. Faith is a very strange thing, coming to a man at odd times, and for--seemingly--inexplicable reasons, and leaving just as peculiarly. I simply maintain, again, that the same "logic" that compels prudent thinkers to believe in the validity of our senses, and so on and so forth, compels me to profess to be Catholic.

At last we encounter the chasm of faith. How difficult it is for the two camps to converse across such an abyss. Too many believers are wholly incapable of dialogue with non-believers because they cannot understand that what in them is natural and logical is totally alien in others. I think that's one reason why converts--from atheism, or at least agnosticism--make such excellent apologists, and why those who have always been religious tend to be effective only at getting a rise from the members of the choir.

As I see it, the issue ought to be framed, not in terms of any putative opposition between logic and faith -- or, for that matter, between science and religion -- but just in terms of *evidence*.

Agreed.

People who disbelieve in God do so, not out of reverence for any abstract ideal of logical rigor, but quite simply for lack of credible evidence to the contrary.

Understandable. But I would wager that the vast majority of religious individuals believe because of the evidence. Now, again, I'm not asking you to believe based on my evidence, or that of anyone else for that matter, but it's worth taking into consideration.

Consider the miracle at Fatima. Dawkins inexplicably brings this up in his book, only to dismiss the whole affair, probably as mass delusion. Yet is not the supposition of the miraculous equally, if not more, plausible? The answer is dependent on one's worldview. If one denies that miracles can occur, any explanation is more plausible than an impossible one. But on what grounds may we make this denial?

I bring up Fatima because it is fairly well known, and because it occurred in the presence of numerous skeptics who confirmed the facts, even if they may have disagreed with the conventional explanation. But little Fatimas happen all of the time. Millions of people have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, the miraculous. To believers, all of the evidence points directly to the existence of God. This isn't intended to be tautological. It's a bit clearer to say that those who do not deny a possibility of a God find that the evidence points to His existence.

You agree with me in rejecting some of these abstract oppositions, but you then immediately proceed to invoke them again in order to justify religious faith. Or have I missed a step?

I'm not sure I follow this. Clarification may be needed.

(On a bit of a side-note, I would also be curious to hear you explain what you mean by "logic" and the sense in which your "being logical" depends upon the Church.)

Allow me to quote Chesterton again. In an essay titled Why I Am Catholic, he writes:

Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.

There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.

To give but one example, when last we spoke, you acted surprised that I spoke so negatively about the war. Indeed, it should have been surprising, for, alas, I was once a republican--and will no doubt be forced to undergo terrible purgatorial pains for such. My journey to libertarianism was not simple, but my anti-interventionism doesn't stem simply from my hatred for the ever-expansive state. It has also been informed by a Catholic mind, specifically the just war doctrine of the Church.

During the run up to the War in Iraq, the left insisted that war never solved anything, which, in addition to being completely incorrect, didn't make sense given all of the countries Clinton bombed. The right had lost it's mind after 9/11, but I went along with them because--oh the folly of youth--if the left was wrong, the right must be correct.

Yet had I listened, Pope John Paul II spoke out against the war, not because war is always bad, but because this one was. And he did so by using the road map of which Chesterton speaks.

That's just one example, but I think you get the idea. It's not enough to be right about something. It's important to be right for the right reasons. To do that, one must think correctly, and the Church has helped me to that end.

5 comments:

troutsky said...

excellent debate, rarely does one observe the necessary attention to nuance and weight. However, to much Chesterton can be like to much of anything. Do you ever read Ken Wilbur?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I honestly don't read Chesterton as often as I quote him, if that makes any sense.

I've been reading other things lately, but if I'm posting about apologetics, I usually fall back on Mr. GKC.

I've not read Wilbur, nor, do be honest, heard of him. Which work of his would you recommend?

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PJ said...

Hi again, and thanks for the follow-up entry. Sorry it's taken me a few days to get back to you. I was away for part of the weekend, and then I had to think through the post and organize my thoughts.

To take on Catholicism in a blog is a bit, shall we say, ambitious of me. I'm certain that much of the below would benefit from further elaboration -- and some of it probably needs qualification -- but I'll just have to trust you and your readers to identify my obscurities and overstatements, which I will correct as best I can.

My attitude toward religion is animated by a tension between, on the one hand, my belief that most theological claims are nonsense, with the majority of the remainder flat-out wrong, and, on the other hand, my belief that it has been in the media of religious thought and practice that humankind has, for many centuries, reflected upon and articulated its highest ideals and most noble aspirations. So, whatever is to be made of this, at least it cannot be said that I don't take the claims of religion seriously, in my own idiosyncratic way.

To begin with a point of agreement, I heartily endorse your closing sentiment that we should strive, not just to be correct in our beliefs, but to properly understand *why* we are correct -- or, in cases of error, to be able to provide at least a sympathetic account of our mistaken beliefs.

In your post, you seem to offer two distinct arguments to motivate belief in the primary tenets of Catholicism.

First you cite Chesterton to the effect that thought without religious faith leads to a kind of nihilistic skepticism. But this, I would contend, is simply false. There are plenty of atheists and other non-Catholics who enjoy fulfilling lives and lucid ethical relations with their communities. It would have to be shown that these people fail in some crucial way to realize the logic inherent in their position. The Catholic apologist would then have to present additional evidence and further argument to establish Catholic thought as not only immune to these self-destructive tendencies, but also as the (unique?) solution to the challenges they pose.

Your second defense invokes miracles as evidence for the truth of Catholicism. I find this unsatisfactory for a lot of reasons. Many religions circulate stories about the supernatural to support the truths of their various, incompatible doctrines. Certain social situations and psychological conditions provide ample incentives for more or less self-conscious confabulation: unique contact with the divine exercises a powerful hold on the human imagination, and the idea promises considerable power to those with the rhetorical zeal to make their case.

I think you agree that testimony about miracles -- historical or contemporary -- is insufficient to establish the truth of Catholicism or any other religion. It is not reasonable to attribute events to divine agency without compelling, independent reasons to believe in such an agent. If I'm wrong about your position, we can discuss it further. (I recognize that the blanket aspersions of my previous paragraph are just that, blanket aspersions. A real argument would probably take the form of a case for theoretical parsimony and the explanatory power of scientific naturalism.)

So, to return to what I've selected as our original point of agreement, I just don't see the evidence that you agree we need. You may feel equally confident about the stability of the ground beneath your feet and the truth of the Resurrection, but the former is subject to constant experiential confirmation in a way that the latter is not; subjective certainty does not establish objective truth. Catholicism, I continue to maintain, requires an arbitrary and irrational assent to external authority.

Although I agree that Catholicism has effectively served many of its adherents as a map in the way Chesterton so eloquently describes, the world that it depicts is no longer the world in which we live, which is home to a diverse array of incompatible religious and secular traditions. It is, as I see it, our responsibility to critically assess these conflicting claims as best we can in order to make the world into a place where everyone has a chance to enjoy a dignified and fulfilling life.

Best regards,
PJ