More on faith and reason

A blogger offers comments on my talk on Reason and the Future of Conservatism, concluding that the talk opposes faith to reason and comes out on the side of faith.

I don’t think that’s quite right. Faith and reason are like substance and form: they’re different but they can’t get on without each other. You won’t be able to make use of reason unless you take a lot on faith, while a belief that you can’t understand in an orderly way isn’t much of a belief.

With that in mind, the current idea of reason, which tries to make everything altogether rigorous, just doesn’t work. Among other things, it says that everything is whatever it happens to be—which means whatever it can be observed and measured to be—and that’s that.

But that can’t be so. Things can also be about other things. If they couldn’t we couldn’t talk about anything. Our thoughts and words are things too, and they can evidently be about something! Meaning and reference cannot be observed and measured, but knowledge rests on faith that our words and thoughts do somehow connect to reality.

And then there’s the old subjectivism issue: things and actions can be objectively good or bad, and that’s not observable or measurable. If they couldn’t then “irrational,” which is an evaluative term, would be an empty term of abuse.

Another problem with current understandings of reason is that they are overly analytical. They look for elementary properties of elementary particles, while human life mostly involves dealing with enduring functional patterns in complex systems. Our knowledge of the latter is more like recognizing essences than noting measurements, and current views of reason can’t make much of essences. (Hence “gay marriage” as an issue, which the blogger seems to view as one in which reason and traditional views oppose each other.)

In all this the point is not that reason should be rejected, but that current views of it need to be expanded. As to God, it seems to me we can’t make sense of our situation without Him. The world must be reasonable for us to know it rationally, and it must have an intrinsic connection to purpose for some purposes to be intrinsically good and others bad. How do we talk about such features of the world without religious categories?

9 thoughts on “More on faith and reason”

  1. The Blogger replies

    Points above are valid. I probably should have used your formulation of scientific materialism vs. faith rather than reason, as you argue essentially for expanding the common understanding of reason to beyond that which can be measured empirically.

    It is just that I think the sentiments that I found underlying Warren’s comments (that each rests in its own place without overlap or conflict) to be the sort of unspoken status quo. And, your talk opened that up in a way I found interesting since it was not what I necessarily expected.


    • Thanks for the comments
      I agree with you about Warren and the status quo. And it’s useful to have to restate.

  2. Doesn’t liberalism’s emphasis
    Doesn’t liberalism’s emphasis on PC dogma suggest that even its reason needs faith to function?

    • Is PC religulous?
      There’s always something that involves faith and functions as religion. I go into the case of liberalism in my book.

    There’s more to-and-fro at the weblog, including the following response from me to a comment to the effect that it’s illegitimate to assume that religion is the only alternative to scientific materialism, and that religion just spins out epistemically irresponsible fantasies:

    It’s hard to give a whole theory of reason, knowledge, reality and the good, together with its complete justification, in 15 minutes. That’s why at the beginning I said I was using bold strokes and at the end I said that my talk raised lots of questions that would have to be explored at great length.

    With that in mind, I don’t see where I narrow the possibilities arbitrarily. Not answering all questions immediately is not the same as claiming no questions are possible.

    The basic thought seems fairly simple: if the attempt to make knowledge fully articulate and demonstrable fails, as it seems it inevitably does, then knowledge will have to involve “a scheme of orientation toward goods and truths we can neither do without nor understand completely.”

    But that seems equivalent to saying that our knowledge and therefore our whole way of life has to rely on faith in some sort of order of being and value that transcends us. I don’t find it misleading, let alone disingenuous, to refer to that kind of faith as religious in nature.

    In order for that faith to serve its function it must of course become more particular in what it says about the physical, moral and metaphysical worlds. Since it has to enable us to place ourselves in the world, what it says will be taken as a description of how the world is.

    That’s life. As someone said, we see through a glass darkly, and what we see we understand as the world itself. To deny the essential role of faith in how we understand things is I think to avoid issues that can’t be avoided. I don’t see dealing with our situation as best we can as a matter of irresponsible fantasy.

  4. Another update
    There have been further comments and further responses. Here’s a response to this comment:

    Thanks for the comments. Some notes:

    You’re quite right that the destruction of tradition has a lot to do with economic and technological developments, in particular with the rapidity of the developments and their reliance on an ever-more-comprehensive technological approach to things.

    Still, man is among other things a rational animal. Theoretical understandings do not simply express the autonomous development of economic practice, and they make a difference in how people act.

    That means that modern economic life depends on (as well as promotes) a particular understanding of man, homo economicus maybe. If you think there are problems with modern economic and social life it makes sense to talk about what that understanding is and what problems come out of it.

    I think conservatives, who are mostly normal non-theoretical people, have generally taken the modern understanding of reason and reality for granted, it’s what they’ve heard all their lives, and then tried to limit its demands. Since intellectual elites work out the implications of the outlook generally accepted, and governments enforce them, conservatives generally don’t like eggheads or big active government.

    Much of the point of my talk was that such an approach gives no long-run guidance and so is useless. We need to add something like natural law. That approach may not persuade many people immediately but it gives a way to articulate our concerns in a more orderly, accessible and usable way and that should tell in the long run if indeed we’re generally right about things.

    Protestants have tended to pooh-pooh natural law, and I think that’s supported a view of religion and morality as basically nonrational. Catholicism has more often emphasized it, and there are thinkers today who are pursuing the issues from a perspective that tries to be purely secular.

    My own view is that the attempt to maintain strict secularity forever is silly. Still, it does make sense to start the discussion with actual experience, and see what it points to, rather than with highest principles such as God. The latter approach tends toward irrational fideism.

    We can’t understand or even talk about experience without recourse to principles that go beyond it, but it’s helpful at some stage to proceed step by step and see that’s so and where we must go to make sense of things. Where that is will always involve faith—conclusions about big things always contain something not fully contained in the evidence—but the procedure gives us a better grasp of the function and limitations of the higher principles we end up relying on.

    As to what to do about practice: various distributists and popes have tried to indicate at least in principle an institutional alternative to an increasingly radical modernity. That alternative would be based on a concept of man as an individual soul as well as social being, with both individual and society oriented toward goals that take account of the economic but transcend it, and so give it a context. A key feature would be “subsidiarity”—a sort of organic decentralization in which functions are carried on in as local and informal a way as possible with a complex system of higher level institutions to support them.

    They haven’t had a lot of practical success. Distributism is mostly a hobby outlook, while Catholic social teaching is mostly understood as soft leftism with right-to-life and support for traditional family forms stuck on. Still, all people can do is their best, and you can’t tell where it will all lead. My basic pitch is that the modern outlook is insistently logical as well as practically insufficient, so it will tend toward crisis and won’t last. That may mean a horrible mess of course. In the meantime we should all go for whatever seems to offer the best hope for the future.

    And here’s a response to a comment that religion tends to draw conclusions that outrun the evidence and become oppressive for those who don’t share them:

    The simplest answer to Alice is tu quoque: welcome to the human condition.

    Every human being has to live his own life. That means he’s going to need—and all normally functional human beings will actually have—an understanding of the totality of his circumstances that he considers generally sufficient to tell him what beliefs and actions make sense. That understanding will tell him, for example, when to follow impulse, how to choose among several plausible courses of action, when to deny impulse for the sake of some higher good, what those higher goods are, and so on.

    Beyond that, every society must have some sort of system of law backed by compulsion. That means there’s going to be some authoritative understanding of the totality in which people live and move and have their being that justifies telling them what to do and what not to do, what they must sacrifice for what ends, and why it’s right to back up such commands by force—including deadly force if need be.

    In the case of a society with a system of law and compulsion that extends to the whole of life, like the modern Western state with its huge budgets, huge bureaucracies, and general responsibility for the well-being of all citizens and for that matter non-citizens, the authoritative common understanding is going to be quite comprehensive. It’s going to have to tell us how children should be educated, what family relations should be like, how people should regard the historical and cultural connections that make them what they are, and so on.

    With all that in mind, why is “religion” uniquely totalizing? Suppose a state or superstate, the EU for example, were set up based on equal freedom as the highest standard. If I walk down the street and look at someone funny, that helps construct the setting in which he is forced to live out his life. It violates his equal freedom. So if equal freedom is the highest standard, and there’s no higher standard to limit it, the government is going to have to tell me how I should look at people—in other words, what my attitudes regarding human life in its various forms should be.

    The highest standard always totalizes. The point of religion it to make the highest standard transcendent and put it in higher hands and therefore make it not fully knowable by us. Without religion the highest standard becomes something fully knowable that demands concrete practical enforcement. For that reason rejection of religion turns totalization, which is a necessary feature of human thought, to totalitarianism. That, I think, is the lesson of the 20th century.

  5. Yet another update
    I respond to a suggestion that my basic premises should be “interrogated,” to the claim that liberals are modest and agnostic, and to objections to my claim that human thought totalizes, but modern thought is totalitarian:

    It’s certainly important to explore basic premises, although “interrogate” sounds alarming. It makes it sound like some state security agency is going to do the exploration.

    Anyway, here are some premises, definitions etc.:

    Life demands that we make decisions, and when the decisions affect others we try to explain them by reference to general principles. It’s antisocial and irrational not to do so. So in the course of living we think through issues, resolve conflicts, and end up with general principles explaining social life, obligations, the highest good, and so on.

    More generally, to function competently as human beings we have to size up, categorize, and know how to deal with almost everything around us pretty much instantly. Our ability to do so lets us devote thought to the few situations out of the myriad connections in which we find ourselves at each moment that remain problematic. The point of thinking about such situations is normally to make them less problematic, so that they become part of the general run of situations we handle more or less automatically.

    For such reasons thought tends toward comprehensive systematic coherence.

    I referred to that as the totalizing tendency of human thought. The tendency goes pretty far I think. There’s much more order and unity in how people go about things than meets the eye. Think about grammar—it’s extremely orderly, and necessary for making sense of the spoken and written word, but not something people are normally aware of. The same applies to other aspects of how we make sense of things.

    It may be that using “totalizing” to describe that situation is confusing. The word’s derogatory, so it refers more often to something a bit different, to the practice of forcing a unity on things based on some specific concrete principle that’s picked out and arbitrarily treated as ultimate. There’s an implication that the favored principle isn’t adequate, so the resulting order is tyrannical and rides roughshod over important considerations.

    “Totalitarian” would then refer to an extreme of that process. That word emphasizes the use of force and the suppression of things that are humanly important. It also seems to emphasize rigid central control and fundamental irrationality. The basic principle and what it demands are totally controlled by some small group, what’s demanded is radically at odds with how people normally act and look at things, and the whole scenario doesn’t make much sense given human nature and the things people usually consider on reflection to be worth doing.

    It seems to me that as so defined totalization and totalitarianism are specific features of the modern period. Modern thought emphasizes clarity, explicit rationality, and enthusiastic wielding of Occam’s Razor. So it likes to try to extract all needed conclusions out of a very few limited and definite premises. That process results in insistence on treating inadequate premises as sufficient for all purposes.

    (The modern age is not the only age that’s done that. Totalization and totalitarianism also popped up during the Warring States period in China. Mohism and Legalism were much like socialism and fascism.)

    So how do you keep the natural human tendency to see the world as a totality from sliding into totalization and totalitarianism?

    It seems to me the way we keep from sliding into a bad totality it to view the highest principle as transcendent: to recognize it as something we depend on and doesn’t depend on us, but we can’t fully grasp or understand. If we view the highest principle that way though then any orderly way of dealing with it that’s definite enough to serve the purposes of human life will involve faith and dogma, and will take on the features of religion.

    So much for the autointerrogation. I’ve mostly repeated myself, so my answers are at least consistent. As to your particular objections:

    1. Of course there are things you leave undecided or consider unknowable. That’s true of everyone. Paul said that we see through a glass darkly. Aquinas said that we can’t know God’s essence in this life. The Fourth Lateran Council said
      that God is incomprehensible, and created things (analogy to which gives us our only positive knowledge of God) are more unlike God than like him. I should point out though, that in general liberal modernity doesn’t consider the question of origins dispensable and so rejects alternate explanations.

    2. The liberal claim that it limits its jurisdiction and leaves the inner self free doesn’t make much sense. Man is social. A belief that has no effect on social and political space isn’t much of a belief. And a government that takes on responsibility for education from childhood on, and feels called upon to adjust how people regard the constituents of their own identity (sex, family, religious ties and standards, ancestral and cultural connections and loyalties) isn’t going to leave a lot untouched. Again, I repeat myself.
    3. Medieval Christendom was far from totalitarian. Political and social authority were radically decentralized. Spiritual and political authority were distinguished, separated, and often practically opposed. Both were understood—by their holders as well as others—to be based on and limited by prior law that was publicly known. Church officials were mostly chosen locally and by locals, who were often secular bigwigs. It’s true you could get prosecuted for blasphemy and heresy, but in effect the same is true in most of the West today due to laws against hate speech, holocaust denial, etc. The penalties are milder, as they are with respect to other crimes, but the regime of enforcement is much more comprehensive and fine-grained.
    4. You can call Stalinism a religion if you want. I’m sympathetic to the usage, since it seems to me there’s always something that functions as a religion. I’d call contemporary advanced liberalism a religion as well. As to Islam, I’d say it has problems. God’s absolute transcendence means that our only way of knowing him is through a particular text in a human language, which seems to put the ultimate standard for things wholly in our hands. So you tend to end up with the same problems of self-contained self-referential absolutism that you find in secular modernity.

    And I deal with the objection that religion adds arbitrary stuff that isn’t really needed, and that it talks about faith but inconsistently tries to rationalize its conclusions:

    The basic issue I think is whether we have an independent self-sufficient faculty of reason (like your “extra-religious perspective”?) that tells us enough about ourselves and the world to live by, or whether our notions of reason are all contextually constructed, and rely on various commitments and understandings that can’t be fully grasped and analyzed.

    In the former case faith is an unneeded and arbitrary add-on that doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the latter, faith is needed to constitute reason, and there’s always something that functions as religion, because we have to make use of and rely on things we really can’t grasp. There won’t be a strict division between faith and reason then. Part of the life of reason will be defining its relation to faith, and part of the life of faith will be putting it in relation to reason.

    • more indeed
      Hi Jim—

      My apologies first for introducing the term “interrogation” outside of context. This is a term we lit crit folk regularly use when describing the process of close textual study. In that context, it carries no negative charge, though I concede that it perhaps seems menacingly Guantanamesque in polite company.

      I don’t disagree that we inherently develop philosophical systems for understanding ourselves and our world and that these systems guide much of our behavior. Of course. However, all belief systems are not created equal. To discuss the claims of Medieval Christianity alongside the claims of liberal humanism, for example, as though they offer equally valid principles for living, is to ignore the specific features of each. I want to suggest that it is by these specific features—not merely by the general fact of our need to organize the world philosophically—that the value of a set of beliefs must be measured. In short, an abstract argument for the value of religion is insufficient. What differentiates the value of one belief system from another are the specific claims of each system.

      Christianity at once knows this and refuses to acknowledge it. The martyrologies of the early church are filled with believers who scoff at the ludicrous propositions of Roman paganism, but the narrative foundations of their own religion—a divine incarnation, a virgin birth, a sacred scapegoat, a resurrection—are not only equally improbable propositions but the very same stories told over again. And yet no self-respecting Christian would concede that worshipping the shining car of Phoebus Apollo is as valid as what he or she holds sacred. In the creation of philosophical hierarchies—in the assertion that these beliefs are “better” than those—is embedded some system of value—something that allows one to claim that the Annunciation of the Virgin is “more true” than the story of Leda and the swan. And yet when Christianity is confronted by rationalism and empiricism (some of the very epistemological modes that discredit poor Leda), the system habitually retreats into abstract claims about the special status of transcendent religious truths. In this way, religion retains its authority by simultaneously asserting a higher claim to truth and situating itself above rational examination. While there’s no question this has worked like a charm for a couple thousand years, I’d sooner call it sophistical sleight-of-hand than the structure of the sacred.

      Moreover, as I have suggested in our conversation, religion makes claims that other systems of belief, such as secular government, do not. The specific nature of these claims is deeply problematic: in addition to mapping metaphysical territory about which we can know nothing, these claims manipulate the interior landscape of human experience in significant ways. I wrote,

      “[Y]ou suggest that governments—or perhaps more broadly, the philosophical foundations of government—are no less totalizing than religion. Government functions to organize human beings’ relationships to one another in social and political space. It makes no attempt—except when muddled with religion—to organize interior space, to map the inner landscape of human experience. Religion tells us that even our thoughts are subject to scrutiny. Moreover, we are bound to its dictates and organizing principles before and after death—for eternity, in fact. And it’s not just us but the whole universe. This is what it means to be totalizing. The modern Western state is not involved in this kind of business.”

      Your response implies that there is no qualitative difference between the claims made by religion and those made by government. But this contradicts your argument that religion by its nature makes claims that are distinct from those that non-religious systems of belief can make. It is true that human beings are social creatures; it is also true that our experience of ourselves as conscious subjects is radically interiorized, radically—even painfully—individualized (cf. Hamlet et al.). This subjectivity is no less a fact of human experience than is our social organization. And it is this experience that religion uniquely seeks to systematize. To suggest that modern liberal government does the same is not only to ignore a significant aspect of what it means to live in this world but to strip religious belief of its greatest trump card: its special claim to console us in our most abject solitude—in essence, its claim to fix the human condition.

      The reluctance of your argument to acknowledge the fundamental significance of interior experience leads to other problematic claims about what constitutes a totalizing system of belief and about the relationship between totalization and totalitarianism. I wrote,

      “[S]ince it is religion and not secular government that seeks to organize every aspect of human experience—interior, exterior, physical, spiritual, pre-natal, post-mortem—I find your concluding point about secularism and totalitarianism nothing short of ironic. Was the Medieval Catholic Church not as totalitarian an institution as human civilization has ever seen? What about modern fundamentalist Islam? Or even Stalinism, which sacralized and transcendentalized the state, turning it into precisely the generator of meaning and purpose by which you define religion. 

Perhaps we’re using the terms ‘totalizing’ and ‘totalitarian’ differently. Totalitarianism is more than simply the hegemony of ideas that one doesn’t like.”

      Your response makes some claims about Medieval Christianity that are inaccurate, particularly when one moves beyond questions of social space and into the interior life of the believer. The social organization of the Medieval West varies considerably across the period and from community to community, of course, and the shift from feudal organization toward urbanization and as well as the growing affluence of the proto-middle class had significant influence on social organization. That being said, however, the one constant of medieval Christian life was the (often corrupt) influence of the Church. It is indisputably the single most influential institution, and is it an institution that manipulated its believers (and persecuted its detractors) in a way that certainly has no analogues in modern western democracy.

      Yes, there were some locally chosen church officials. But the Church told people, among other hideous things, in what frame of mind it was and was not sinful to have sex with one’s spouse. Seriously? “[T]he same is true in most of the west today”? Yes, there are public utterances for which one can still be criminally liable. But the Medieval Church burned people alive for thought crimes; its heresy trials and inquisitions did not merely prosecute public utterances—which are interventions in the social space—but sought to make windows into men’s souls, as Queen E would later put it—to inscribe and criminalize the human interior. The Church inculcated fear about the afterlife and then systematically exploited that fear for financial gain, at the same time rigidly mediating lay people’s access to the authority of sacred text. I could go on. Totalizing, totalitarian, what you will: these are not the features of modern civil government.

      Your response seems not to regard this belief system as problematic, let alone totalizing or totalitarian, instead suggesting that these terms describe uniquely modern phenomena. I would argue that what you identify here as “specific features of the modern period” do not in any explicit way describe modernity. On the contrary, the concluding statements—“[modern thought] likes to try to extract all needed conclusions out of a very few limited and definite premises. That process results in insistence on treating inadequate premises as sufficient for all purposes”—are precisely, exactly how I would describe religion in general and Christianity in specific. The history of Biblical exegesis is the narrative of these impulses.

      Indeed, I could not define organized religion more eloquently than you’ve defined totalitarianism, whose “resulting order is tyrannical and rides roughshod over important considerations.” To my mind, a few of the considerations over which religion rides roughshod would include these indisputable facts: people are afflicted with harelip, schizophrenia, cerebral palsey, and a thousand other forms of unpreventable, meaningless suffering; no one has ever given birth without first having had sex; no one has ever risen from the dead; no one has ever seen hell, the devil, Purgatory, heaven, or any other mythical locale that religion posits; it is not possible to read the thoughts of another being; we do not know what happens to us when we die. Religion’s “practice of forcing a unity on things based on some specific concrete principle that’s picked out and arbitrarily treated as ultimate” negates, in the name of transcendence, any and all of these truths. Why would we rely on such a belief system to illuminate higher truth when its foundational narratives so obstinately cling to fiction? If reason illuminates the divine, surely reason can do better than this?

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