Total Pageviews

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Natural Faith and Supernatural Faith

It seems to me that although we often speak of having to start with a redimentary credulity in putting faith in our belif forming faculties as being typically or standardly reliable, and even though we often defend the rationality of Christian faith by pointing out this fact (as in 'faith may be rational because we must start with faith in order to reason at all'), there are important dissimilarities between faith in God and faith in our natural faculties.

Consider two cases. One, suppose you are in virgin woods somewhere in whatever is left of the American wilderness. The area is relatively untouched by human hands and things are left to themselves. While walking through the woods, you see gorge over a stream with a fallen tree across it. Given your general assessment of trees, you think thatthe tree is strong enough to hold your weight and so you try to cross it. However, the tree collapses from the middle under your weight when you attempt this and you get seriously hurt.

Two, suppose you are in a well manicured national park on a hiking trail well marked out by forrest rangers and park authorities. As you walk the trail, staying well within the marked areas and not going off in the woods on your own, you come to a gorge. Across the gorge is a fallen tree which has been made into part of the trail, sanded and coated, by which you are meant to cross the gorge. But as you cross it, it breaks under your weight and you are seriously hurt.

The question is, how do you assign responsibility in the two cases. In the first case, you are putting faith in the tree that it can hold you up. It turns out in time that your faith was misplaced and you fell. But you don't hold the tree personally responsible for its failure to hold you up. You may hold yourself personally responsible for taking a chance on the tree, but such responsibility need not make your decision inappropriate if you knew what the risks were and willing to take them. However, in the second case you were as much as assured by the forrestry service that the tree was reliable and you were as much putting your faith in them rather than the tree per se. Your faith in the park was misplaced but now they are culpable for your being hurt and are appropriately held responsible.

I suggest that putting your faith in your natural faculties of belief formation is more like the first case than the second case, at least initially, or at least that it should be. Let's distinguish between two sorts of fideists, the natural fideist and the supernatural fideist. Both are fideists because the start with faith rather than reason. The supernatural fideist starts with God as a personal trustee for all your beliefs so that even in the case of natural belief forming processes you have to presuppose God in order to justify relying on them. If, later on, experience should lead you to conclude that these (or enough of these) mechanisms are not reliable, like tarot card reading or ESP, the sense of betrayal goes back to God as the trustee. God turns out to be the Evil Demon after all. The supernatural fideist presupposes absolutely that epistemology is like the national park case and balmes the Park Ranger when if and when things go wrong.

But the natural fideist starts with a basic faith in his mechanisms of belief as naturally adapted to nature and begins with wonder rather than doubt. Having begun in such a faith that his faculties are generally reliable, she may further conclude that the best account to explain (granting that the capactity to come up explanations is part of that natural belief forming apparatus) how we have reliable belief forming mechanisms is that God exists and has hard wired our mind to accomodate to nature. The natural fideists proceeds in a kind of natural Cartesian circle, starting with an assumption that our natural mental resources are generally reliable, conclude that God exists ans a necessary aspect of accounting for this, and then is reinforced in believing that his natural belief forming mechanisms are reliable based on the goodness of God.

The difference is that granting the epistemic possibility that experience will show the unreliability of our mechanisms after all, we no longer ultimately blame God for it since God was only introduced to make sense of our independent faith in the reliability of our belief forming mechanisms, that is we introduced God only to explain the assumption of general reliability which turned out to be false. That being the case, there was no occasion to believe in God after all. In the case of the natural fideist, the circularity is not vicious. It remains open to correction while also maintaining openness to the fruitful possibility of inquiry.

The intuition here is that it is less onerous to start with natural faith than with supernatural faith since in order to inquire into anything at all we need to start with faith in some sense. One might say that the whole enterprise of "being reasonable" is constituted by the observance of such a natural faith and that therefore we must regard the justification of the presuppositions of theism and Christianity as being "based on reason". I think that we have to think of the program of Classical Apologetics this way and thus resist the charge that such an apologetic sees theistic arguments as "blockbuster proofs".

No comments: