Showing posts with label reason. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reason. Show all posts

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Reason, Experience, and Christianity

Richard Feynman
I sometimes get asked the question directly, and often find the question posed to me indirectly, as to how I can be a Catholic, given my fields of interest and study seem to suggest I should not be: epistemology, philosophy more generally, physics and mathematics. These are all areas where the standards of knowledge are quite high, and the questioners seem to imply that I should hence re-consider whether I am justified in being Catholic. To be Catholic brings, after all, a relatively large set of new and difficult (if even possible) to prove or verify beliefs. That, even within these fields, I am particularly fond of René Descartes, Richard Feynman and Paul Dirac, only makes the problem more acute.

I wish to explain my position here in brief. It is not quite a full picture, and like most things outside of logic and mathematics, it is difficult to see how it can be made objectively normative. Furthermore, it completely omits the sorts of arguments and pathways that led me to some of the premises in this framework originally - a path that involved the methodological scepticism of Descartes, some study of philosophy, history and science. That story would be my best attempt at a foundationalist approach to Christianity - and I think it gets one relatively far, certainly to the point of being some sort of Christian. But it does not truly ever arrive at Christianity. I have instead found the position I hold now to be far more compelling and satisfying, even if it will alienate certain conversation partners.

To begin, I must quickly introduce what epistemologists mean by knowledge. Precise definitions vary because of some rough edges, but the classical definition still holds relatively firmly: knowledge is true and justified belief. That is to say, that some proposition constitutes knowledge in the case that the knower believes the proposition (one cannot know what one does not even believe), the proposition is in fact true (one cannot know a falsehood) and finally, one is justified in believing the proposition. What separates knowledge from belief is that the belief is true, but perhaps more importantly, that the knower actually has sufficient reason, or justification, to believe the proposition. Not surprisingly, some of the fiercest debates in epistemology seem to be around theories of what constitutes justification.

Very simply, I will term my position Christian reliabilism. Reliabilism, in the sense in which I will use it, refers to an epistemological theory of justification which says, in a somewhat crude form, that a belief is justified if it arises from generally truth-giving (or "reliable") faculties or sources, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. For example, I am justified in believing that I am sitting on a chair because I sense that this is the case with my sense of touch and sight. If there were evidence that I was dreaming, then I would no longer be justified in believing I am sitting on a chair.

Reliabilism is a broad family of theories of justification, and can actually be used in a broader sense than just justification. One reason it is powerful is that it is probably the only practical theory: the two other major families of competing theories are foundationalism and coherentism, both of which are excellent, but neither of them can really be thought of as "day-to-day" theories of justification. Foundationalism is very intuitive for people like myself who study mathematics, since it consists of the view that knowledge is built out of self-justified, basic beliefs. These could be said to correspond to what mathematicians call axioms. Descartes is surely the most famous and clearest foundationalist. Coherentism is a less ancient theory, but it is one which tends to appeal to scientists (as well as others) because it holds to a view that is somewhat similar to the approach taken in the natural sciences: coherentism is about finding justification in a coherent set of beliefs. A belief is justified if and only if it forms part of a coherent set of beliefs. Although the natural sciences involve other principles, such as Occam's razor, that a theory be coherent with all the data (both the data that has already been obtained, and the results that the theory predicts) is what defines a good scientific theory.

I struggle to see how truly self-justifying propositions can form a proper basis for knowledge without an impractical degree of scepticism. I doubt that even such basic things as the existence of the external worlds, or other minds, or perhaps even of the self, could be proven from self-justified propositions. So whilst I am drawn to foundationalism by my mathematical training, I cannot support it as a practical theory of justification. Coherentism is a theory I would be biased towards accepting, since its internalist structure makes it fairly straightforward to be a Catholic. But alas, I cannot see how it can be ultimately defended; it has elegance, but I see no way of bridging the gap between what reality seems to be in itself, and a coherent set of propositions. Elements of coherentism feature to some extent in many forms of reliabilism, however, and so coherentist theory may appear implicitly in what follows (in particular, note that the clause "without evidence to the contrary" given above in regards to reliabilism is essentially a statement about coherence).

Now, what constitutes a reliable faculty or source of truth is the area where Christian reliabilism is set apart from non-Christian reliabilists. It considers there to be three broad sources of truth: reason, experience, and Christianity. Reason is reliable as a source of truths, for instance, in mathematics or logic. Experience, by which I mean sensorial experience or experience of the empirical, is a reliable source of truths, for instance, in the natural sciences. God is a reliable source of truths in all areas, though I do not know of anyone who argues that God is a source of truths in actuality, since God is generally said to have revealed things of a particular kind, if any.

Probably the first objection one might have to adding divine revelation to the old empirical-rational duo of reliable sources is that divine revelation (sometimes called special revelation, or hereafter, just revelation) does not build off the others. However, whilst that line of critique would be fruitful if I were advocating foundationalism, it is somewhat irrelevant to a reliabilist. This can be seen from mere consideration of the other two: someone who denies the existence of the external world could just as well argue that experience is not a reliable source of truth, because it is not giving truths about anything that actually exists. Arguing that reason is a reliable source of truth is more difficult, because all arguments make inferences that are deemed valid by reason, but somebody stuck with a Cartesian demon would, nonetheless, doubt their own capacity for rationality. At bottom, both reason and experience must be deemed to be properly basic by the reliabilist - the foundationalist may mutter in despair, but they can do no better.

The Christian reliabilist, then, adds God to the list of properly basic reliable sources, and specifically, God as revealed in Christianity. Supposing God to exist, it seems obvious that God is a reliable source of information. Furthermore, there exists an parallel between the existence of the external world and the existence of God: whilst I think the existence of God can be proven, many dispute that arguments I find sound truly are sound, just like how philosophers such as G.E. Moore believed they could prove the existence of the external world, and yet, many dispute the arguments he offered (including myself). It could be said that, like the existence of the external world, the existence of God must be assumed. Whilst I have some discomfort at holding that position, particularly since I think the existence of God can be proven,* it can nonetheless be held with intellectual rigour, so long as it is granted that one is justified in believing in the existence of the external world without a priori proof.

The second objection is far more substantial, in my estimation: I have used God-as-reliable-source and Christianity-as-reliable-source somewhat interchangeably. But they are not the same, as a Muslim or Jew (et cetera) would inform. The same point made above could be a fruitful venture, that is to say, that one must assume Christianity to be properly basic, and yet, that route is supremely unsatisfying. The most obvious reason why that is the case is that the truth of Christianity is not like the truth of the existence of the external world, or God, but of a choice between multiple different competing sources for the title of divine revelation.

The difficulty could be resolved by trying to dip into the other theories of justification: I could attempt the foundationalist route, as I did when I became Christian, and argue from historical Jesus studies, in particular, any evidence for the resurrection. A similar approach could be taken for some other path from reason and experience to Christianity in terms of foundationalism, although I cannot think of any that are uniquely Christian and sufficiently powerful.

Or via the coherentist one, I could assume that God has "spoken" through some religion, and test them all to see which presents itself as most coherent. That the union of secular fields of knowledge and Christianity yields a powerfully coherent set of propositions, including with historical Jesus studies, keeps my mind at rest whenever I have major doubts about things, and yet, as I said, coherentism leaves me unsatisfied in general as an epistemic justification theory.

This second objection is not, in any case, unsurpassable since one could in principle assume Christianity is properly basic. Objections such as "given Christianity is true, what follows?" - in the same vein as the satirical xkcd comic strip on string theory below - are also important.

As one person noted to me, there is an important problem of interpretation: creedal statements like "Jesus is the Son of God" can be variously understood. What does it mean to be the Son of God? (One would naturally jump to some sort of sexual reproduction, which at least to some extent, would be completely mistaken) What does that imply about Jesus, other than origin? (The Arians, for instance, generally did not deny Jesus' sonship, but they did deny his divinity). If there is a difficulty in interpretation, there is a difficulty in understanding what is said to actually follow from the view that Christianity is a reliable source of truth. To a large extent, but not fully, this objection is met by Catholics in reminding the protester that the Church is herself a "living voice" - Christianity, in the view of Catholics, is not a religion of the book. As the Catechism quotes St Bernard saying: Christianity is the religion of the "Word" of God, "not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living". (CCC 108) And yet, that does not always yield perfect interpretation.

So Christian reliabilism has some issues that remain outstanding. Still, I contend that they are largely rough edges which can be fixed. One issue, however, remains crucially outstanding: Christian reliabilism is not objectively normative. By that I mean, whilst I can hold to it with intellectual rigour, I see no reasons within the system that would convince someone who did not hold to it. Whilst the same could be said, once again, about those who deny the existence of the external world, and to a large extent, absolute objective normativity is generally not thought to be possible, this is a theory which involves a much more ambiguous series of entry points. To this issue, I will return at a later date.

* It is actually a de fide teaching, I am told, of the First Vatican Council. Strictly speaking, though, since God is beyond what the usual arguments show (except, were it sound, the ontological argument), I do not believe the existence of God can be proven, only the existence of a being which is remarkably like God.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Loss of Popular Rational Discourse

Every so often, I commit the mistake of scrolling a bit too far down to the comments section on a YouTube video, and since I usually watch videos relating to something religious or anti-religious, the comments are without exception filled with some debate about the existence of God, or whether morality can exist without God, or whether God is good anyway.

Except it is not quite a debate. Debates are generally reasoned discussions of opposing views, and these "YouTube debates" tend not to be reasoned at all, on both sides. There are, of course, exceptions, yet they are a rarity. Mostly the comments form a mudslinging fight.

Why is this the case? Perhaps I am simply in the odd position of having been on both sides, and so am sympathetic to both views, but I think the reason is deeper than that. It seems that both the theists and atheists, on YouTube but also in many other forums and popular level discussions, have lost the ability to debate with reason.

I think part of the reason is a matter of how these opposing religious and irreligious sub-cultures have arisen. Historically speaking, both sides of the issue have had a very intelligent and thorough position, from the likes of St Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics (not forgetting earlier figures, which also abounded), through to modern philosophers of religion on the theist side, and the unforgettable likes of David Hume, John Stuart Mill, among others, on the atheist side. Throughout history, clearly humans have been able to argue reasonably about these matters.

Yet now, the popular level is not steeped in the vast intellectual tradition. The Christians (which I will now refer to instead of plain theists, although the sets of Christian and theist are not identical) seem to talk more like they use faith as an epistemological tool to know the truth of these matters, thus making knowledge an inward thing, and the atheists portray themselves as the bastions of reason, even whilst attacking caricatures, making ad hominems and generally not using reason at all. Statements like "You talk about faith in a god which there is not one logical reason to think exists" abound in the popular atheist discourse, and the problem is, that shows more ignorance of the person who states such an absurd statement than it sheds light on whether or not God exists. Whether some divine being exists or not, logical reasons have been put forth for centuries on either side.

However the two ways of knowing proposed, faith and reason, are never used. The Christians do not use faith to know, because faith is not a way one can get knowledge of any kind. Reason is not used by the atheists, to some degree because the popular atheist is not well versed enough in matters of reason to employ it properly, but also because the Christians never require it of them. One can comfortably proclaim oneself to hold the reasonable position, whatever that position may be, if the argument against it is not reasonable. One can talk about the logic of the atheists' position forever, if the argument against it is "you're going to hell" - which, if such a thing is merely asserted, does not challenge reason but only offends.

I have centred my observations thus far at the popular level, because at an academic level such foolishness is not so rampant. It is of no use, however, to suggest that people do a bit of research before they open their mouths on these issues, because it is impractical. It is my contention that the problem is this: the argument has gone for so long that it is no longer possible to throw together a few premises and come out with a conclusion. In essence, the arguments still are of that sort, but a much grander defence of hitherto unquestioned principles is required nowadays. Whereas in times past rational intuition held a much higher status, now seemingly obvious truisms are questioned, such that philosophy departments are full of people that do not hold common and intuitive beliefs at all.

The popular level is not full of detailed consideration of philosophical puzzle cases, unable or unwilling to think critically of one's own position as well as the opponents'. As I say, the intellectual tradition has gone beyond what most folk can comprehend readily - that is the problem, and it will not suffice to relegate the majority of people to "the ignorant box." If we as a society are going to progress, it is not because academics and intellectuals advance, but because everyone is brought up to some common and higher standing. The problem we face, in my opinion, is of how to equip people with the ability and desire to discern the truth, enter into rational discourse and, were somebody to be convinced of some proposition or set thereof, actually have it change them. The unspoken assumption that anything one does not already believe must either be false or relatively unimportant must also be challenged if the societal Zeitgeist is to be changed to re-involve critical thinking and reasoning.

The previous consideration applies to practically all areas of life, and now I will offer a few comments on the subject of theism and related debates:

To the Christians: it will not do to ignore reason in public, or indeed private, thought. Throughout the Christian era (CE, slightly adapted) we have had some marvellous minds tackle problems. Take an epistle of St Paul, and count how many times he uses the word "therefore" - such a word is a prime indicator that he is using reason to argue his case. We lose such depth to our religion if we ignore the argument and just focus on the conclusion. We believe that circumcision is not necessary - but can we argue why? Throughout Galatians, it is a heck of a lot more sophisticated than "Jesus finished with that kind of stuff." The use of reason in theology, in philosophy and in other areas enriches, it does not destroy.

We also caricature humans if we forget that we are rational animals when we speak of the gospel. It is true that sin is a problem of the heart, and that the working of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to conversion, but if we then go from that and forget to engage the minds of others, we shoot ourselves in the knee and wonder why we cannot walk. As people and not machines, humans need more than just cerebral content - yet neglecting the cerebral content is something done to our own loss.

To the atheists: it is plainly ignorant to merely assert that there is not and has never been a good reason for believing in some divine being. You may not be convinced, but it does not show any intelligence to regard the rational case for such a being as never opened. The burden of proof is certainly on the theists, but that does not mean that theists have never advanced some case. If you are to be defenders of reason, then what is required of you is that you practice what you preach - so you can do your research, figure out what is wrong with our arguments, and then rebuke us in our fallacies or falsehood. Or maybe (God willing) be convinced!

Furthermore, and this case bothers me in particular, it is not true that "one can obviously have ethics without God." I think one can have ethics without God, but it is not obvious, and the sooner one realizes that it is going to take some argumentation, the better. What is the basis of this morality? How can one know what the right course of action is? Is it universal, and what makes others obliged to follow moral precepts? These are all questions that cannot be answered by asserting that atheists have an answer. Like I said, I think atheists do have an answer - but it is not the case merely because I have asserted it. I used to be a utilitarian (which is the only system I can think of which does not require God - Humean ethics, the most common sense one, fails, in my opinion, but that's another discussion), and I can guarantee that some of the answers I had to give to these questions were not in the slightest the most intuitive. It seems to be the case that the truth of these matters, whatever it may be, is a lot more complicated than most believe. This has been known by the intellectual elite for a long time - it is now time for that elitism to be lessened and the doors to be opened to all.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Pillars of Christian Belief - a critical examination

Disclaimer: In a sense, critical examination is overly sensationalist. For the purposes of this entry, I am going to assume that Christians hold the Biblical texts commonly, and from there, see if we can further extend Christian understanding using the other pillars mentioned last entry. That is the sceptical question: "can we generalize to other pillars?"

Following on from the previous entry, I think it is clear that the door is wide open to other teachings. Yes, false teaching is condemned. But not all teaching is condemned. Where do we draw the line then? In terms of pragmatism, Sola Scriptura certainly has this going for it:

  1. As our earliest Christian writings, including the gospels, which have the words of God the Son, the Bible is clearly an invaluable and clearly very crucial document. Everyone will agree that Christianity and the Bible go together - even if how exactly is debated. From this, we can have a large degree of assurance of that their guidance is going to be pretty decent.
  2.  On the flip-side, we have no such assurance of other teachings, as far as we have explored so far. It seems clear to me that the most important thing in Christianity (grace) can be transmitted and learnt about with only this core of teaching - so Sola Scriptura has the added benefit that it can boast sufficiency. This word comes up a lot in discussions of this kind, and of the Catholic-Protestant dialogues, so to be clear, it just means this: that the Bible has all that is needed to attain salvation.
Now, if you are convinced by my two reasons for this doctrine, reliability and sufficiency, why would we even want to have other founts of knowledge? The reason I have is very simple: we cannot help it.

The other pillars mentioned were the Church, ("sacred") tradition and reason. Here is why I think they cannot be avoided:
  • The Church: If you go somewhere long enough, if you are in that kind of atmosphere, you will begin to be convinced of some of the understandings that place has. This is no difference with the Church. Indeed, the Church first came up with the foundational creeds (Nicene, etc). Which brings me to the next pillar...
  • Tradition: We cannot get rid of it. We are, to no small extent, bound by the way our culture thinks, and this is manifest in traditions. The Church becomes like any other body, taken up into its traditions, and with them, able to stand firm in their teachings. A Protestant might quote Jesus in telling the Pharisees that they sacrificed God for human teachings and traditions, but remember that the way to avoid human traditions is to have Godly ones. Also, it is worthy of note that enormous chunks of the Bible would have been oral traditions (particularly Genesis) before they were ever written down. It is inescapable. We do not think purely rationally, but are bound by culture and tradition - we better make sure we have the right ones.
  • Reason: To use a bit of circular irony, I think using reason as a pillar for belief is the only reasonable thing to do. Jokes aside, however, I cannot actually give an argument for the use of reason - self-authentication has never been something I thought of as valid, but instead, purely circular - in short, I do not subscribe to coherentism.
What do I conclude? Sola Scriptura, other than un-Biblical, and although it may be useful,  is not actually really possible. Submit everything you learn to the authority of the Bible - but for goodness' sake, do not think that you are separate from these other influences. Be smart and get the right usage from them.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On the Foundations of Judeo-Christian Thought

It would be very arrogant indeed if I, a student of a discipline far from studies of religion or ancient and classical era history, wrote a small entry on a blog that I thought should be regarded as the correct understandings of the foundations of this system of beliefs in all its diversity. I do want to write, however, a short piece detailing what the foundation isn't - the Bible. Most Christian are actually not Protestants, and some of the pillars of Christian thought in the 21st century are the Sacred Scriptures (meaning the Old and New Testaments collected in either the Protestant or Catholic Bibles), Sacred Tradition, Reason and the Church (or Magisterium).

My own church (a rather lovely one based in a suburb of Brisbane, in Australia) is part of the Protestant tradition which holds to the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" (Latin for "Only Scripture"). My opinion on this doctrine is implied in how I described Protestantism; it is a tradition. The Bible itself, to the best of my knowledge, does not claim to be the sole authority. There are questions it poses but does not answer. There are references to outside sources of information. There are even references to tradition in a positive way! The epistles of the apostles are often in the form of logical arguments, or at least reasoned arguments. Jesus speaks in parables which are, in his own words, to obscure the meaning of his words (why he does this can be the subject of another entry), the apostles use apostolic authority...meaning that overall, tradition has a place in the Bible, reason has its place, Magisterial authority has its place and really, "only the Bible has the truth" is profoundly unbiblical.

So what does the Bible say about authority? Well, as seen in yesterday's entry, the founding figure of Christianity claimed to be, in and of himself, the truth. This same figure's parting words according to the gospel of St Matthew are "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." There are references to authority (of Jesus), a command to make disciples and to teach. This is not quite the same as "give them a book and let them read it". Indeed, that would not have made sense for many many years - canonization was not for a few centuries, and not until the 16th century did the reformation occur that came up with this doctrine that the Bible was the only authority.

Where is the pillar of Christianity, then? It is not in a series of documents dating back millennia. At least, Jesus does not seem to think so. The foundation of Christianity is Christ. And unlike what many evangelical fundamentalists seem to hold to, when Paul writes about what would falsify Christian belief, it is clear that the final authority is not in the Bible. It is in  Christ's resurrection.

One final remark - yesterday I wrote about the peculiar and striking claim made by Jesus, as recorded by St John's gospel. In that same chapter, he says "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves."

What then can Christianity hold on to? Where can we draw the line between fact and fiction? On the basis of the evidence for the works of Jesus, most notably the resurrection.