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Saturday, August 09, 2003

The Wildebeest Retracts His Scepticism

Looking back at some of the things I said under the grip of skepticism, I feel obligated to make some recantations in a certain sense. I have been greatly helped by reading J. White’s book, “Experience and God”.

There is no denying the truth and authority of the critical point of view within its own perspective. Pure critical thought has shown that, with respect to terms and claims, we cannot form our beliefs into propositions of sufficient clarity to make explicit what we mean or whether our religious, moral, and historical claims shown fundamentally to be true or consistent. From the point of view of supporting our beliefs by either deductive reasons or inductive reasons, there are no arguments or evidence for the truth of theism or Christianity or for any particular interpretation of Scripture available. It is not reasonable to be a Christian according to the paradigm of reason that has been successful in giving modern society its great accomplishments in science, markets, and democratic process. Furthermore, the progress in reductionism made in the sciences of the mind, of nature, and utilitarian ethics are far more achieved than the credit Christians often give them indicates.

For a while I thought this meant that the only two choices available to me were either sheer fideism or giving up on the faith altogether. The first was unacceptable as an irresponsible and sheer arbitrary act without motivation, the second meant being consistent and giving up not only a belief system that was very important to me in the past but also giving up everything that gave human life any importance. The lifestyle envisioned by such a move seemed as intuitively unrespectable as someone having the aim of being stretched out on a table and wired into Nozick’s pleasure inducing machine.

From the point of view of critical thought, there are no alternatives significantly different from either of these. But we are not merely formal and critical thinkers. We still have the “natural dispositions to think in certain ways that we’ve had since childhood and which our education endeavors to weed out of us. For example, we experience ourselves as subsistent beings over time, in spite of constantly being told that we must only be pastiches of momentary images correlated with constantly alternating physical particles and states. The interesting thing is that we see ourselves as existents when and while we see our bodies as physical processes, etc. And this is not only peculiar to our experience of ourselves but permeates all of our experience. We see a message to us when and while we see a twisted tube of colored neon. We see a ball game when and while we see pixels on a television screen. And these experiences are putatively realistic and are associated with a belief in the reality of the object that we cannot but form. I will call this “natural reasoning” as distinct from “critical reasoning” which I will use to refer to the form of reasoning I discussed in my opening remarks.

It is really natural reasoning which accounts for the plausibility of the arguments and evidences of Christianity. The moves that make up most of what passes for traditional apologetics requires the presumption of the reliability of natural reasoning (which is itself a presumption of natural reasoning). Further natural reasoning is a feature of the species of humanity. It seems plausible to me that much of the Bible’s appeal to reason for the support of Theism and the true faith is just this appeal to natural reasoning. Also, the Bible’s objection to “philosophy” as vain for moral and religious purposes seems aptly applied to the fruits of critical reasoning. I don’t think the text is crimped at all by the distinction between natural and critical reasoning. Finally, although not fecund in the same way that critical reasoning is, natural reasoning has a fecundity of its own, contributing to health, well-being, and prosperity of humans.

From the point of view of critical thought, accepting claims on the basis of accepting natural reasoning would just be another instance of fideism, so that natural reasoning is no reasoning. But we ought to resist this resistance. Critical reasoning for all its great strengths in many fields is especially weak in its characterization of natural reason. Critical reason is often getting the phenomenology wrong. A classic example is the reply the ordinary language theorists made to the positivists in the 1950’s: “In you epistemology, do you mean by knowledge what the person on the street means by knowledge?” But this failure is widely spread through out all the applications of reason. The only way to get the phenomena of natural reasoning right is to return to it and examine it in the way that we find it. And when we do we discover this natural and putatively rational and realistic feature, rich in description, which seems to be a point of convergence across cultures. There is a given quality to our lives that critical reasoning is constantly neglecting and making mistakes about, a feature about which we cannot choose not to have but can only choose to repress. From the point of view of critical reasoning, relying on natural reasoning involves a choice and a risk, but it is not a leap in that we are not making things up willy nilly but trusting in a possible resource given to us over which we have no say.

According to that source there is a God an infinite personal being and we are finite persons and we are invited to put a personal trust in and have a loving relationship with that great being. This aspect makes sense out of why God would restrict us to coming to Himself on the basis of the risky bridge of natural reason rather than critical reason, a reason which does not turn his transcendence and otherness. It is not that God appeals to us by appealing to something that is absolutely beyond rational thought as some fideists would hold. God is evident in every drop of water and every grain of sand – to natural reasoning. But critical reasoning is an inappropriate organ for the purposes a personal God would have for making Himself known to us. Natural reason presupposes agenthood, critical reason does not require it. It may be true that it is not clear what interst an infinite transcendant God could have in his created “ants”, but there is this natural and personalistic reason we seem hardwired to have – a most apt medium to be made to include if such a God were interested in us. The risk detected by critical reasoning is just the risk that is inevitable and appropriate to personal relationships.

So we do have rational motivations to hold that Christianity is true based on natural reason. It is still to be shown that critical reason does not indicate that Christianity is false but in this area Christians and even some non-Christians who work with critical reasoning have been superlatively successful in refuting proposed objections to Christian friendly beliefs. Since there are rational motivations to be a Christian, this means I have to retract in some sense the claims that “there is no evidence at all for Christianity” and “apologetics is bunk”. While these claims are true from the point of view of critical reasoning alone, they are not absolutely true. But it does mean that apologetics is hard because it involves inviting the non-believer to open his or her mind to its own natural reasoning as the starting point of thought and to resist the inclination to reject out of turn anything that is not critically justified. These are things that the non-believer may just be flat unwilling to do. But if we are refused, we must resist the pressure to accommodate our view by insisting that our beliefs are nothing but what is based on an arbitrary trust in an alien authority and continue to affirm and proclaim the rationality of our commitment to Christ based on God’s gift of right reason in our own nature. The Christian, in saying this, is not opposing herself or himself to critical reason and wants to discourage such. Rather, the Christian is seeing both as part of a spectrum of possible types of reason, used for different purposes.