On Faith and Reason
The nature of faith itself has been a troublesome category, and the relationship between faith and reason has been tumultuous, yet as Eagleton recognises, ‘without reason, we perish; but reason does not go all the way down’. There is something too subliminal to be integrated into traditional rationality, and as man is defined by his barring from the divine, there cannot be evidence accumulated to support faith, which means that faith must be abandoned, or one must go beyond evidence and reason, and embrace this transgression as constitutive of faith itself.
James and Eagleton
The rationality of belief must first be considered in terms of its epistemic justifiability. There must be a distinction between perceptual experience, and religious experience, and between reasonability, and scientific reasonability. Hick argues that ‘it is as reasonable for those who experience their lives as being lived in the presence of God, to believe in the reality of God, as for all of us to form beliefs about our environment on the basis of our experience of it’. As per Descartes and Hume, ‘it is impossible to prove the existence of the world that one perceives’, but this does not negate perceptual experience, just as one cannot prove the existence of God does not negate religious experience. It may be irrational to not relate religious experience with faith. One may accept that perceptual experience is sufficiently reliable, in the same way religious experience is reliable. However, religious experience is reliable ‘except when the experience ‘yield[s] a system that is ineradically internally inconsistent’, and does not violate perceptual experience, or common-sense. Faith may thus be said to be reasonable, yet not scientifically reasonable, by which there must be something disjointed in the basis of scientific reason itself, evidentialism, which Eagleton interrogates: ‘Evidence by itself will not decide the issue. At some point along the line, a particular way of seeing the evidence emerges, one which involves a peculiar kind of personal engagement with it; and none of this is reducible to the facts themselves’. Evidentialism seeks to construct some ‘appropriate’ relationship between belief and evidence. Aikin thus formulates his version of the principle, such that ‘we take sufficient evidence to be evidence that is sufficient to make P more likely than not-P’. Thus, evidentialism says that faith cannot be rational: (1) belief in God requires sufficient evidence to be rational; (2) no such evidence exists; (3) therefore, belief in God is irrational. However, Plantinga rejects (1), for there is no basis for the assumption that belief is subject to the demands of evidence. Rather, belief may be rational without inference from evidence or argument, by which evidentialism fails. Nonetheless, for Clifford, beliefs held without sufficient evidence is the cause of irresponsibility in consequential cases, such the ship-owner, who ignores evidence against the seaworthiness, allowing the ship and its passengers to perish. The ship-owner acts irresponsibly as his belief is based on insufficient evidence. Thus, Clifford’s evidentialism can be summarised in his principle: ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence’. As Cling recognises, it is not ‘clear what the relevant evidence is sufficient for’, nor whether ‘‘evidence’ refers to factors that are positively related to truth, or to factors taken by believers to be positively related to truth’. Moreover, by elevating this principle from being an epistemological norm, into a moral imperative, Clifford implies that there are moral consequences to disobeying such. Should there be consequences for false belief in less consequential cases, such as whether there is something in the fridge? This appears to force Clifford to weaken his principle. James rather argues that one can believe that there is something in the fridge as their ‘best guess’, even though this belief is based on memory, and could be false, with no consequences. And there are situations where withholding belief is itself harmful, living in messianic anticipation of ‘sufficient evidence’. There is an obligation to believe only propositions for which there is sufficient evidence, except in cases where evidence is unable to decide between competing propositions. James uses the example of an Alpine Climber: a climber is able to survive only if he completes a dangerous leap, and he thus weighs the evidence of success and failure against one another. If the climber believes that the leap will not succeed, he will fail, and if he suspends judgement, he will fail, but if he believes that the will leap will succeed, his success is made more likely. Thus, the climber has non-evidential reasons to believe in his success despite insufficient evidence- James’ principle is able to explain this, whilst Clifford’s principle is not. James thus argues that there is little harm in belief, tempered by some evidential limitations, such as when the religious experience appears incoherent with the perceptual experience, where the alternative is burdensome, and offers no real benefit. Moreover, many beliefs commonly held, even scientific ones, are not based on evidence, sensually evident, nor self-evident, for most beliefs ‘are acquired because one is told that they are true, and one assumes that they are, based on the authority from which one hears the belief’, and ‘[m]any things that one cannot prove still hold to be true’, such as other minds existing- ‘we can’t help but trust our cognitive faculties […] Reasoning must start somewhere’. In fact, faith may be rational without verification, as few believe in God because of argument, and one can come to God through other means, to which one ‘has to trust something other than just facts alone, and make a leap of faith before any real knowledge can be obtained’. And there are many instances in which one is obliged to hold beliefs upon insufficient evidence, where withholding belief is harmful. For example, in command, one must be decisive and believe that it is the right decision, based upon insufficient evidence, and such a leader is preferable to a leader who does not act. Thus, belief may be considered reasonable, without being scientifically reasonable.
Plantinga and Chesterton
Underpinning Clifford’s evidentialism is a classical foundationalism which is unable to make the leap of faith, nor make faith rational. Classical foundationalism is grounded in two kinds of belief: basic beliefs, rational even when not held on the basis of other beliefs, and non-basic, rational when supported by basic beliefs. Classical foundationalism thus prompts evidentialism because of the restrictions imposed upon what can be considered basic, and how this informs faith. For the classical foundationalist, the only properly basic beliefs are those which are sensually evident, incorrigible, self-evident. Thus, belief that is not sensually evident, incorrigible, or self-evident, can only be considered rational if supported by beliefs that are sensually evident, incorrigible, or self-evident. In this framework, the evidentialist conception emerges because faith appears to fail this criteria, making faith rational only if supported by sufficient evidence. However, there are problems with classical foundationalism which violate common experience, and self-coherence. Firstly, classical foundationalism classes a number of accepted beliefs as irrational. Such a belief would be that ‘other minds exist’, accepted by most rational humans, yet the formal arguments for which are weak. The best argument to support this belief is from analogy: ‘we observe that our own mental events such as being in pain are accompanied by certain behaviours, … and then infer from this that when others are exhibiting similar behaviour, they are also having the associated mental event’. If one fails to believe other people have minds we end up with a society in which self-interest rules, and if one suspends judgement, we are caught stagnant. Whilst this inference cannot be said to justify the belief, if it can be demonstrated ‘to be sufficient it would still be implausible to claim that only those who have knowledge of the argument are rational in their belief that other minds exist’. Thus, if such a belief can only be rational upon ‘sufficient evidence’, classical foundationalism suggests that we should give up a bevy of our commonly strongly held beliefs which help society operate. Moreover, classical foundationalism is ‘self-referentially incoherent’, that is, classical foundationalism is unable to meet its own standard. Classical foundationalism itself is not sensually evident, incorrigible, or self-evident- it must produce an argument from premises that are such, yet this appears impossible. Rather, it is the ‘responsibility of each community to decide what it considers to be properly basic and to take that as a starting point; there can then be an exchange between the examples and the criteria that they are used to justify, each refining the other’. Rather, ‘there is no neutral starting point for philosophical enquiry’, but this is not arbitrary, nor relativist, for there is no originary set of properly basic beliefs, nor criteria of proper basicality, and this is the basis of reformed epistemology. Here, faith is independent of reason, but not opposed to reason, for ‘to believe what is properly basic is not to believe what is opposed to reason’. Plantinga thus employs Kuyper’s distinction between reason and faith: ‘the deliverances of reason are those beliefs that are based on argumentation and inference, whereas the deliverances of faith are beliefs that are held independently of argument and inference’, by which ‘anything held in the basic way will be taken on faith’. Therefore, belief in other minds is taken on faith, yet this appears to be a reasonable belief, and religious belief is akin to belief in other minds. Similarly, for Chesterton, ‘[i]t is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith’. In this sense, Chesterton elevates faith above reason, for reason itself ‘falls under the purview of faith’, identifying five routes by which faith may be scrutinised: classical foundationalism, evidentialism, cumulative case method, presuppositionalism, reformed epistemology. Chesterton recognises that there are limitations to each, extrapolating such into a synthetic method, by which certain evidences, including ‘illogical truths’- truths that would be thought illogical if they were not true- can be explained, making the case for faith. Chesterton makes the connection between faith and reason in his classical foundationalism, adopting Aquinas’ ‘willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth’, by which if reason arrives at truth, that truth could not contradict the Christian truth, and Chesterton’s evidentialism is also apparent in producing an argument ‘made by looking at the outside world and asking for explanations of what is seen’. However, in conjunction with his reformed epistemology, this amounts to Chesterton’s faith of common sense: ‘It was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ; and the soul of it was common sense’. The belief in other minds may be considered ‘common sense’ in that ‘it suffers from too much evidence in its favour; too much to be formulated’, transgressing the need for reason. One may offer the deductive modus ponens for the Cogito, that ‘I’, or my mind exists: everything that thinks exists; I think; therefore, I exist. However, one cannot extrapolate this into the case for other minds, such that, if pressed to produce a case for this belief, one must employ other methods, such as accruing the evidence which indicates the existence of other minds, and applying the cumulative case method to suggest that this is the best explanation of the phenomena observed. This sensus communis is something which does not see ‘deductions and eventualities’, but concerns itself with ‘common things, … and basic truths’. In this way, the sensus communis embraces paradox as a creative force, and paradox creates a welcome absurdity.
Kierkegaard and Hegel
Perhaps the greatest mobiliser of the absurd is Kierkegaard, who gives an account of how the absurd catalyses faith, through which the ultimate moment of faith, the Abrahamic sacrifice, can be properly considered an act of faith. Reformed epistemology may be considered post-Hegelian, in the same way that Kierkegaard moves beyond Hegel to provide an account of faith and reason. For Hegel, knowledge of the Absolute is possible, rejecting Kant’s assertion that there is a distinction between knowledge available to us, and Absolute truth, for such a distinction does not exist as knowledge and thought processes themselves are elements of the Absolute. The Hegelian goal is Absolute knowledge, through awareness of ourselves as expressions of the Absolute mind. Spirit recognises itself as spirit through mutual recognition: each individual spirit recognises the God within the Other to recognise the God within oneself. This reflects the master-slave dialectic, in which one is defeated in combat, becoming the slave of the victor, but gradually, the master becomes dependent upon the slave, making the slave master, and master slave, by which the ‘master’ frees the ‘slave’. In this same way, God comes to depend on man, as the master depends on the slave, such that man becomes God. Hegel’s God does not exist independently, as our finite existence is necessary for the existence of the infinite, but this pantheism, for Chesterton, is a ‘suicide of throught’, for there is ‘no special impulse to moral action’, as it implies that ‘one thing is as good as another’. Rather, Kierkegaard’s God is one of action, independent from the finite. Whilst for Hegel, das Aussure is higher than das Innere, Kierkegaard paradoxically inverts this, such that faith is this very paradox- ‘the paradox that inwardness is higher than outwardness’. For Hegel, private particularity will look to undermine the universality of the ethical, and this elevation of the individual good over the collective good is a ‘moral form of evil’. The outer is the universal, social institutions, which inform the sittlichkeit, whilst the inner is the particularity of being, by which ‘in the ethical way of regarding life it is therefore the task of the individual to divest himself of the inward determinants and express them in an outward way’. Kierkegaard recognises problems in Hegel’s dependence upon the finite in informing morality. For example, should a Nazi soldier be ethically correct if the state lauds his behaviour? Thus, to surpass this deadlock, one must go further than Hegel. The first inwardness, which the Hegelian hero also performs, is ‘going out into the world and achieving mutual recognition of spirit to recognise and understand the collective spirit of the finite minds’. The second, and more important inwardness, is that ‘the individual must isolate themselves and individually seek a relationship with the completely independent God’. Thus, the Nazi soldier goes wrong in that they do not define their own relation to the Absolute, and then allow that relation to the Absolute to define their relation to the universal, but are allowing their relation to the universal to hold dominion. Through the second inwardness, one defines their relation to the Absolute, which determines their relation to the universal, and this is the paradox of faith. Returning to Abraham, either Abraham is a murderer, implied by Hegel, or the the true knight of faith, implied by the Bible, and our common sense dictates that this must be the case. Whilst the tragic hero is rooted in the universal, and their actions may be understood as consequences of ethical duties to social institutions, and as murder is societally considered wrong, Abraham has done wrong. However, for the knight of faith, there is no justification in the universal, by which Abraham is the ultimate knight of faith, for ‘He is willing to unquestioningly sacrifice his son as he has made the movement of infinity and then embraced the finite by virtue of the absurd’. Faith cannot be mediated into the universal, for it would erode. Faith must be this paradox, which transgresses common rationality, yet is rational- it is absurd. The capacity to complete the second inwardness is through the sensus divinitatis imbibed in man, giving man ‘knowledge’ of God, which cannot be learned through science, or reason, but through this resignation upon the absurd. Faith is made possible through embracing that which cannot be reasoned, through elevating the individual above the universal. Kierkegaard thus echoes James’ message, by which religious claims are of such importance that we cannot simply suspend judgement, in Either/Or. If there is a captain of a ship, who must perform a shift of direction, ‘he may be able to say: I can do either this or that. But if he is not a mediocre captain he will also be aware that during all this the ship is ploughing ahead with its ordinary velocity, and thus there is but a single moment when it is inconsequential whether he does this or does that.’ If the captain forgets to take into account the velocity, ‘there eventually comes a moment where it is no longer a matter of an Either/Or, not because he has chosen, but because he has refrained from it … Because others have chosen for him — or because he has lost himself.’
Through a shift to reformed epistemology, through which the sensus divinitatis and sensus communis form the basis of the ‘leap of faith’ on the strength of the absurd, faith may be said to be rationally, not scientifically rational, or perhaps arational altogether, yet this is not a pitfall. Man is imbibed with facilities such that there are instances in which withholding belief is morally neutral, or harmful, by which belief upon ‘insufficient evidence’ is necessitated.
- Aikin, S.F., 2014, Evidentialism and the Will to Believe, Bloomsbury, London.
- Alston, W.P., 1991, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience, Cornell University Press, New York, pp. 290–304.
- Alston, W, 1992, ‘Religious Experience and Religious Belief’, Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, Oxford University Press.
- Bolos, A, Scott, K, n.d., ‘Reformed Epistemology’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <https://iep.utm.edu/ref-epis/>.
- Chesterton, G.K., 1908, Orthodoxy, John Lane Company, United Kingdom.
- Chesterton, G.K., 1925, The Everlasting Man, Hoddler & Stoughton, United Kingdom.
- Chesterton, G.K., 1933, 2000, St Thomas Aquinas, House of Stratus, United Kingdom.
- Clark, K.J., ‘Reformed Epistemology Apologetics’, Five Views on Apologetics, Zondervan, Michigan, pp. 266–84.
- Cling, A.D., 2015, ‘Revidentialiam and the Will to Believe’, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, <https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/evidentialism-and-the-will-to-believe/#:~:text=Clifford%20holds%20that%20believing%20is,not%20supported%20by%20sufficient%20evidence.>.
- Clifford, W.K., 1877, 1999, ‘The Ethics of Belief’, ‘The ethics of belief’, The ethics of belief and other essays, Prometheus, Massachusetts, pp. 70–96.
- Eagleton, T, 2009, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Hick, J, 1989, ‘The Rationality of Religious Belief’, An Interpretation of Religion, Palgrave Macmillan, London, p. 304.
- Hegel, G.W.F., 1821, 1991, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, translated by A.W. Wood, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Hegel, G.W.F, 1807, 1977, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- James, W, 1879, ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’, Mind, vol. 4, no. 15, pp. 317–46.
- James, W, 1896, 1956, The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy, Dover Publications, New York, pp. 1–31.
- Kant, I, 1781, 1998, Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Kierkegaard, S, 1843a, 1992, Either/Or, Penguin Books, London.
- Kierkegaard, S, 1843b, 2006, Fear and Trembling, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Kuipers-Sedee, M, 2021, Chesterton, the New Atheism, and an Apologetics of Common Sense, DOI: 10.26116/bxn1–3d93.
- Kuyper, A, 1931, Lectures on Calvinism, M.M. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan.
- Nathan, S, 2009, ‘Religion for Radicals: An Interview with Terry Eagleton’, <https://tif.ssrc.org/2009/09/17/ religion-for-radicals-an-interview-with-terry-eagleton/>.
- Paul, H, 1998, ‘John Calvin, the Sensus Divinitatis, and the noetic effects of sin’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 87–107.
- Plantinga, A, 1983, ‘Reason and Belief in God’, Faith and Rationality, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana.
- Plantinga, P, 1993, Warranted Christian Belief, Oxford University Press, New York.