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Thursday, January 19, 2006

E-mails from a philosopher: Part I

Hello Gnu,

I was hoping to see you today, but you haven't called us and we haven't gone out anyway... I'm not even sure Eric is celebrating his birthday.

Never give out your blog address in a bar, even if it is a relatively quiet bar, and even if it is a relatively well-lit bar and you're asked to check the web address on a written format. First I looked at . (Get it? Gnu - New)That was in Italian. I know you're not a Catholic, so I quickly ditched the hypothesis that you were writing your blog in Vaticanese.

Then I was at , which is, mind you, maintained by a philosophy major. A new one, I gather, since he was only (but only) writing about how much he missed his family but that it was very cool since he got to meet with another new chic and "click with her" right away. Good for him, the stupid bastard. For several reasons I knew that wasn't you.

Finally I typed "wildebeast wardrobe" in google. It said "Did you mean "wildebeest's wardrobe" ?" --or something like this, and there I was.

I only took a quick tour around at this time. I was trying to find a bit I could grasp without having to discover back references. And I did. I read the piece about Christians having to be ready to give a rational defense of their faith when asked. I thoroughly find it reasonable when you say "This wouldn't show that we did not have a reason to believe, just that we cannot give a reason. It would not mean that we are being unreasonable in our belief in Christ or that the only motives we have are practical ones, or that our belief must be merely hypothetical. The fact that we cannot express our reasoning in terms of an formal argument that must needs find universal acceptance in all its assumptions and premises, does not mean that we do not have an argument in the sense of having a process that rationally guides our thought to the conclusion that Christianity is true."

Here's a question, though. Consider someone (and this is me--but more on this later) who has been receiving prima facie direct evidence of God's existence. Direct because she has experiences as of having a conversation with God. Prima facie, because, well, she could be wishful-thinking, projecting, imagining things, going crazy, or whatnot. And these conversation experiences only happen when she's in a Christian, and incidentally, a Catholic church. Moreover, three years in a row, when Christmas comes and she hears carols like "what child is this" or "o come all ye faithful" (but not "jingle bells" or the like) she is taken over with immense joy coupled with the strange feeling that she has been wrong all this time. (Not necessarily that she has been acting immoraly; rather that she has had the wrong beliefs. I think this is important.)

Is this person in a similar position as the devout, you think? That is, does she have reason but is unable to give reason? Suppose the answer is "yes". That is, the evidence she has, prima facie as it is, is reason for her to believe that Christianity is true. I can only accept this part if we are to understand "having reason" in an externalist sense. (I think your use of "rational processes" in the above paragraph is a sign that you too are endorsing the externalist sense here.) The evidence she has (as I laid out above) is of course reason in an internalist's sense too, but if we go for the internalist conception of having reasons, then we won't be able to univocally say "she has has reason but she is unable to show that she has reason" --the interalist conception doesn't allow this.

Okay, step one then: In the externalist sense, she has a reason to believe Christianity, but she isn't able to give reasons.

Furthermore, she is at a junction, trying to figure out whether to adopt Christianity or not. Can she rationally adopt Christianity, on the basis of the evidence she has? The answer seems easy doesn't it? Yes she can, since we're working on the assumption that she has reason to do so. Fine, but can she tell herself that it is rational to do so? No! We have already accepted that she doesn't have the ability to give reasons; she can't give reasons to herself either! (Crappy, eh?) How on earth can someone justify to oneself that Christianity is true when what I described above is all the evidence one has?

There has been times when I demanded for more evidence. I understand it was obnoxious of me to do so, but I don't think it's immoral. (Also, I would think that if God is just, he would not judge someone strictly by the rules in the book while the person is in good faith trying to figure out whether to accept the book. Maybe me thinking this is even more obnoxious. Anyway...)

I'm not claiming that there is any paradox here. In fact, I got the answer already. Last Christmas in church, my "correspondence" provided the answer. (I guess not completely, since I still use quotation marks around the word 'correspondence'.) I had experiences as of Him saying "What more do you want? I sent two mercenaries [she means 'missionaries' ;) - TG.] to you in Istanbul (whom you managed to puzzle with your 'divine foreknowledge and blameworthiness' argument), I spoke to you twice in Istanbul when you were in St.Antoine Cathedral, I helped you come over here where you got married to someone who has Catholic upbringing, and you became daughter-in-law to a woman who plays music at my church. I spoke to you last Christmas and this time. When you mentioned these feelings to Mr. Smith, he gave you the Bible to read. What more do you need?" I said "I have no clue what to do next, for I still cannot believe." "Just read." "I will, but what if I loose these feelings after I leave the church? What if I become as skeptical as I was before?" "You know better than to ask that. Just read. You know (better than most) that you can read something without having the slightest the intention or expectation to be convinced by it. Just read."

So it seems that one answer to the puzzle should go along the lines of saying "She cannot tell herself that it is rational to go ahead and believe Christianity. But she can (and maybe she epistemically-ought to) tell herself that at this point it is most rational to read the Bible."

And I will. But I had to speak to someone about this, to someone who believes. Do you think I have a chance? Well, it's not fair to ask you that, you cannot say no and remain faithful yourself. But say something please. Just tell me what you think.

You know, for a long time I've been meaning to tell you this. But I never found the right circumstances. I guess it was very serendipituous that you mentioned your blog last night. (Here we go again...)

Hope to see you soon,

Mrs. Smith

The Gnu's Reply:

Dear Mrs. Smith,

First, I few things.

One, I deeply respect that you shared this with me and I will be very circumspect with this. I have a good track record with keeping confidences.

Second, in the following, I refer to God as "he" according to my tradition. I don't think that God is male or female. Its just a convenience. If it helps to think of God as She, go ahead.

Third, I agree with your analysis and I have agreed with similar analysis for years and a lot of my own philosophical reflections have been focused around trying to think of at least helpful things to say to intellectuals both inside of your (and still in many respects my) situation and outside of it. I have to admit that I have never found anything that has been able to satisfy me all the way down and maybe such a thing is impossible. Let me put together some thoughts, which if they work for you, that's good but if not just drop them.

One thing, and this is in part in appropriation of criticisms of internalism, I have a radical comment to make that helped me deal with some of this. Even though God is omnipotent, theologians have not taken that to mean that God can do what is logically impossible like make a world with round squares in it. And I suspect that this also applies to Russell-like demands for evidence for theism. It could be (and "could bes" are sufficient for my needs here) that humans instantiate a natural kind that simply cannot receive absolutely non-question begging evidence for anything. It is not logically possible for God to meet such evidential demands because to do so for creatures like us is contradictory. God is not guilty for not doing what he logically cannot do. Why make beings of such a kind in the first place? On the one hand, there may be good reasons that we cannot see but given the purported greatness of God's wisdom, our not being able to see is not a defeater. We are understandably not in a good epistemic position to see. But on the other hand, having the ability to have internally available non-question-begging evidence for anything, under closer examination, may turn out to be a divine attribute anyway -- if anyone has it, that one must be divinely perfect. There are plausible Leibnizian reasons for why God does not create other Gods like himself. So none of us are God II.

Given that God cannot provide for such a demand of evidence, and given that a good God may want his objects of care to be able to know him, it seems that we should expect this would be provided for by nature in an externalist way. This seems consistent with some features of our experience. Even Hume claims that "custom" continues to see the world around us as an artifact of divine design even while being aware of objections to the conclusiveness of design arguments and his experience seems to be at one with the great majority of members of our species. If there are no other conclusive objections to the coherence of the possibility of God existing and providing knowledge of himself this way (and to be honest, while I have never found a conclusive demonstration of this I have also not found a conclusive objection to it either in all my searching) then such a possibility might be and probably should be taken seriously.

This seems to at least point us in the direction of questing for God even if we cannot yet simply believe in him. But whether or not one chooses to do so seems to depend on whether or not a person has certain values. (Another Humean point in my would-be Christian apologia.) Some people value a certain self-sufficiency here rather than perhaps recognize humble dependence and frailty to humanity and such an attitude would stop such a search before it starts. Perhaps we may have residual attitudes of both kinds and the tension between them tracks with whether and how intensely we search for God. This is one place where the Christian concept of the Fall comes in, which is a picture of the moral dimension of this whole thing. An important contrast between believers and non-believers is whether they have one certain set of attitudes or the opposing set. But these passions, affections, emotions, whatever, are part of the externalist story too. God could provide the set which points in the right direction and this seems to be what grace in part means. "I would not have sought you unless you already had found me." This emotional difference plus externalism may not be relativism but the only possible cure for it.

At any rate, if one has any sincere desires to seek and has no reason not to seek, it seems that someone is rational enough to pray the agnostic's prayer "Dear God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul". I see this as an intrinsic motivation, I desire for restored communion with the previously alienated God rather than seeking "fire insurance". The image of Hell could well be a mental picture for the intrinsic self-defeating suffering of abiding divine alienation. It is not necessarily a selfish motivation that per hypothesis would alienate God even more. But as we are often a mixed bag of motives full of conflicts and contradictions and have plenty in us to stand in the way of being reconciled to God, the important thing is not an absence of perfect rectitude but the presence of some genuine desire for communion. As long as we are dreaming and dreaming that God is good, let's dream that he is benevolent and gracious too.

But if one sincerely and seriously prays that prayer and maintains the seeking attitude of which the prayer is a paradigm exhibition, one spins a certain pragmatic context between themselves and God, if he exists. One perhaps should not expect the kind of knock down evidence that one craves as a way of being able to assure oneself of the truth. But God may act in such a way in response to that prayer which by all appearances seems to be God responding to the seekers prayer. In such a case it would be to wrong God and resist the good that God would do us to be overly suspicious of it or to suddenly impose impossible epistemic standards on the whole thing. The case is analogous with other minds. We may doubt they exist due to lack of a convincing argument but we still are appropriately offended when they don't keep their promises to us. If we request something of God and it looks like he has answered we have already committed ourselves in our request to respond appropriately, I think.

Of course, it may be that God has already provided the answers to such requests somewhere at sometime. And here is where I think Mark's advice comes in. The Scriptures are a putative account of God's dealings with humanity stemming from a particular point of entry into world history. There are other such accounts and we may have to look at them all or at least some of the main alternatives. But sticking with the Bible as an example of how we might approach this, on the one hand we see that it is first of all a kind of historical report with an essential positivistic dimension to it. There are some historical standards being observed even if they are not as precise or demanding as our modern critical views, but the intention is certainly to get things more or less right. But it is not history in any disinterested or neutral sense. But the presuppositions of the account are at least very similar to the set of presuppositions I have tried to sketch on independent grounds, namely the possibility that God exists and makes himself to disclosed to humankind not by offering assumption transcending evidence but by providing such "evidence" that would indicate some kind of personal assurance that he cares and has done something in humanities behalf, sort of like the handshake that seals the deal. The reader will have to be open to the possibility that God "interacts" with history and not assume automatically that such a thing is impossible in order to test the assumption that God might have heard and responded in an appropriate way. If one is willing to consider the possibility of God, one must be open to certain other possibilities

Here I think the standards of judgment are more like the standards of evidence one finds in a courtroom jury trial-- these are not philosophical standards but they are appropriate for the occasion. There might be some clear principles here but the basic idea is that you may already be able to judge for yourself whether what you taste is good. This sort of use of reason though may be applied to all the great religious traditions of the world and I think that there is a sort of thing we might call religious rationality by means of which religions are comparable in some sense.

When I first became a Christian, I was home alone listening to Billy Graham as a teenager. He gave a brief and plain presentation of the basic message of the New Testament Church. I was struck by several features. One, that the New Testament diagnosis of the human condition as "sinful", as severe as it truly is, had made better sense of my life than anything else; it was the only view that took my personal case with sufficient seriousness. Two, the provision of atonement for the guilt of sin had to be a divinely initiated provision of something divine like to satisfy the retribution due toward me in order to make possible the renewal of fellowship with God again. Three, the necessity of having to appropriate that gift by faith seemed logical with all the constraints involved especially that new life had to be all of God and none of me, the hand that merely receives is the only appropriate device to use to return to God. The whole story struck me as having a certain genius to it that would be hard for a set of humans to come up with merely on their own and not merely because of the intellectual hurdles but also the demands it makes on a person's character just to attend to such matters; this also encouraged me to think that God was at work in all of this. Finally, when I surrendered my life to God by praying with Graham on TV, I had a powerful experience of release and relief but was even more important about it was that along with that experience I underwent a powerful change of attitude -- "Lord, you have given so much to me, what can I do for you?". (Also, something freaky happened to the house cat right then but I don't make that a part of my case.)

Obviously this is all very unsatisfying philosophically and evidentially, but it illustrates how I think that someone might be persuaded enough to make a decision. There is such a thing as a moral certainty to faith even if there cannot be a philosophical certainty, a sense of knowing that your doing the right thing. The possibility remains open that someone will come up with a decisive argument or evidence that defeats such a faith, showing it to be false or incoherent. If so, that will be the end and a responsible believer will give up his belief. In fact, it seems that the biblical account encourages such testing as an aspect of trusting God itself. But until such a falsification comes along, I am obliged not to give up the belief that I have willfully contracted myself to even in the case of apparent difficulties in believing -- such obstinacy under the conditions is a virtue -- we must be willing to trust God and not leave at the first sign (or perhaps the second or third sign) of smoke. But still, the believer can only be dogmatic in certain contexts, he cannot claim absolute certainty and must at some level continue to be open to criticism. But in practical matters, a person cannot suspend judgment until the investigation is resolved ("art is long, life is short"), and one of the most important tests can only be done by being existentially committed to a faith anyway.
But even though we can't be certain philosophically, I think that something like the above story shows we need not be the parochial fools that Socrates and Bertrand Russell are always chiding religious yokels for. Socrates knows nothing and neither do I (if knowledge is internal). As someone with at least some philosophical sensibilities, I regret having nothing more satisfying but it is clear to me that this is sufficient and that one of my exercises toward holiness is to at some level be content with that although I admit I have had a hard time doing it. Such is the simplicity and difficulty of believing. Faith is ultimately a choice.

Of course, I cannot say whether you have a chance, but to speak pastorally (and I am a failed pastor as well as a failed apologist) the way to go about this is to examine yourself along the following lines, by the light of the Ten Commandments and the example of the life of Jesus as you see him in the gospels. Do you notice in yourself a certain recalcitrance toward obedience and selfless love either toward others or God as the Sovereign Good? It is better to not face this question in the abstract but to think about concrete examples either in the parables or stories in the life of Jesus and also in your own case. Do you find a sense that what is called sin is also "sinful" to you such that it seems that you abhor what God abhors at any point even should you find that in yourself. Is there a certain sense in which you are even able to acquiesce in God's judgments even if they should apply on you?

Further, in examining Christ, do you find in him that excellence of character you long for in yourself? Does the account of the significance of the cross seem to you to be an adequate solution? Would you be willing to appropriate such a solution for yourself perhaps as even the necessary solution in your case? In the face of the possibility of such grace, would be willing and even find some delight in turning away at least in resolution if you cannot in immediately do so in action from those besetting behaviors that you see to be sinful and to turn to holy character of God as to a great pleasure? Would you thus be willing to accept Jesus as your Christ and King and be his disciple in the Kingdom that he came to establish by his death? These are the sort of questions to ask. If you you find that the answer to them is in accord with acceptance of Jesus as Lord, there is no choice but only the need to act on your desires. Turn from sin and trust in Him. Repent and receive the good news and you will have the life of God in you.

But if this is not true as yet and you still would wish to consider it, the answer is that you are better off putting yourself "in the way of grace" then not. Try reading the Bible and soliciting prayers. Pray the agnostic's prayer hopefully. Go to places where Christians meet and hear the exposition of Scripture. Don't give any money or take any sacraments until you are assured that you desire to believe, since these are both privileges of believers only and God is not indifferent about them. Go where the Spirit of God is visible through the obedience of the people of God and be expectant. I don't have any prescriptions about how long or other practical questions, either you will meet God or eventually feel the whole thing to be pointless. This assumes that you have or are concurrently investigating other alternatives. That's okay.

And if you want, I will pray that you find the truth your looking for. If what I say is so much bull, I of course understand and simply ask that you ignore this post.

In Him, The Gnu

The exchange continues here.

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