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.


  1. "Whilst I think the existence of God can be proven, many dispute that arguments I find sound truly are sound".
    Maybe this means that that your arguments aren't sound? If a majority of fully informed, rational, logical people find an argument faulty, then it probably is.

    My largest complaint towards Christianity (aside from translation/interpretation, human fallibility and the inaccuracy of ancient history in general) is that there is no definitive proof that Jesus Christ did actually resurrect. Without the resurrection, Christianity has no real claim to divine truth or authority over any other religion.

    Another issue I have is that of the Church and the clergy. Today's Catholic Church is one of the biggest multinational corporations in the world. The power they wield is not one that is impervious to corruption. Their present ideologies (especially within the Vatican and higher levels of the Australian clergy) are sexist, inequitable, evangelical and patronizing. I fully believe that an institution like that shouldn't be the ones dictating how to interpret your spirituality.

    - JP

    1. "If a majority of fully informed, rational, logical people find an argument faulty, then it probably is."

      No, for various reasons. First, nobody is fully informed, rational and logical. Second, even if they were, everyone starts with a particular set of beliefs that they bring to evaluating any argument. I suppose that's another way of saying that nobody is fully informed (because then their prior beliefs would not matter, because they would be true), but it's important: a true sceptic, and I don't mean a posh sceptic in name only, someone who really thinks no knowledge is possible, will not believe any premises. Arguments, as I said, are usually not considered to be objectively normative (ie, any rational person should accept it) - instead, arguments are thought to be about getting from shared premises to conclusions, or premises one person holds to conclusions that they may or may not. The problem of what to do when rational and informed people disagree with you is sometimes called the problem of epistemic peers. I don't know if you could call it a field, but there's an area of epistemology specifically dealing with this issue, the "epistemology of disagreement."

    2. Some of the points you raise are important, but they're very weak for someone who holds the views I have presented. Translation and interpretation issues are largely marginal for Catholics, because we have a Magisterium. Human fallibility is not an issue for a Catholic in a general sense because the Magisterium is said to be protected from error in dogmatic statements with regards to the depositum fidei by God. The inaccuracy of ancient history is completely irrelevant for most Christians, it's only a select few that worry about that sort of thing. And I would say that in some cases, ancient history is not that inaccurate. But I can't prove that, just like I can't prove most things.

      And the same sort of thing goes for your largest complaint that outside of definitive proof for the resurrection, there can be no Christianity. That's not true. You're right that without the resurrection, Christianity has no real claim to divine truth - but without the resurrection and without definitive proof for the resurrection are two different things. I tried to draw the parallel multiply between various things you (probably) believe, like the existence of other minds, the external world, etc. - there's no definitive proof for those either! If I may put it in those terms, people believe in the existence of the external world because they believe the testimony of their senses. Similarly, Christians are justified in believing in the resurrection because of the testimony of God. I agree that the multiplicity of religions brings about problems with that view in terms of convincing others, but it does not make it incoherent in itself.

      The Church is rather big, and it is not impervious to corruption on the whole. But you're going to have to defend the view that Church teachings are sexist, inequitable and patronizing - I affirm that the Church is evangelical, but it would be wrong not to be. And if by patronizing you mean that it has teachings, then sure, I'll grant you that one too, but you'll have to argue that's a bad thing.

      Again, if by sexist you mean that it does not consider a man and a woman to be the same sort of being, then sure, but I would find it hard to believe that the only differences between men and women are a little bit of a chromosome men are missing per cell, with no other effects. There really do seem to be sex differences. So if that's what you mean by sexist, my high school biology text books are.

      And inequitable - well, we think all humans are equal in dignity, so I'm not entirely sure what you mean. Different people have different functions in the Church, is that what you mean?

      But I can still agree that the Church has corrupt leaders, or at least, could have them. Christians have always thought this. In the paraphrased line of a friend, which I found quite witty, "we didn't leave because of Judas, we won't leave now."

  2. Jonathan Ebert7 March 2014 at 11:26

    I don't understand how God can be placed on the same basic level of experience and reason and just be assumed to exist. I understand that there will always be problems with listing anything as a reliable source of truth as we can never, of course, know with absolute certainty what is truth. However, with experience (or sensory input), there is essentially a necessity to accept it as truth, because if the basic input into the mind cannot be trusted then nothing our mind tells us can be trusted and it is therefore not worth thinking about anything as nothing we sense or think is real (or at least there is no reason to believe it is real). In order for thought to have a purpose, some input into the mind must be trusted.

    With God, on the other hand, there is no necessity to accept it as truth. Whether or not God exists, everything in the observable world is still the way it is now. The only things that the existence of God changes are those which cannot be observed, such as that which happens after death, and other things not related to the senses (I am not saying that if God exists he does not cause things that can be sensed, I am merely saying that these things would be present in a world with OR without God given that we know they happen but we don't know if God exists).

    Essentially what I am trying to say is that since, as you have said, there are problems with accepting any of the forms of 'reliable truth', so wouldn't it make more sense to accept as few of these as possible? With the senses being essential to the trust of any thought, they must be the most basic method of discerning truth (and to believe in God you must believe your senses anyway, as that is how He communicates, and presumably he would not feed lies to human senses [or bodiless minds] for eternity in the christian view of God).

    As for reason being a source of truth, I see it more as being a way of seeing truths that are inherent in other truths. For example, if we take the basic equation of 2+2=4, the fact that we have 2 groups of 2 is a truth that we already know. While reason says that we have 4, it is not creating new truth, but it is revealing the truth that is inherent due to the truths that we already know. Reason is not, to me, a method of discerning truth in itself, but is more of a way to understand all of the truth that we sense.