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Friday, February 13, 2004

Objections to Natural Faith vs Supernatural Faith

(Note: "Classical Apologetics" refers to the attitude that our current approach to defending the faith should be continuous with typical approaches of the church in the past (patristic and medieval). More specifically, it refers to the scholastic realist strategy endorsed by R. C. Sproul as opposed to the presuppositional idealism of Cornelius Van Til.)

It is worth asking whether it is absolutely possible to show all our belief forming mechanisms as being unreliable. It does seem like that is impossible since we will always have to rely on some to refute the others. However, it is possible to criticize some of our belief forming mechanisms and no longer trust some of them. For example, we might have thought that since heads has not come up in a regular coin toss for a while, it is more likely to come up on the next toss. Such "intuitions" are quite pervasive and persistent even in trained thinkers. But a moments calculation will show us that such a belief is false and that in general our intutitions about likelyhood are unreliable.

A more serious possibility is that someone will come up with a better alternative to explain the reliability of our natural belief forming mechanisms than postulating God. For example, our most reliable belief forming mechanisms and those that have made genuine progress are those empirco-mathematical procedures associated with the develoment of science. Compared to things like intuition and religious experience -- or even eye-witness tsetimony that is used in courts of law -- the superiority of science is well evident. Consider how many jury verdicts are overturned by the development of DNA testing. One might conclude that we are more reasonable then in trusting science relative to our trust in our ordinary untrained powers and therefore our trust in science should be proportionately higher. Further we can for a great extent determine whether a scientific procedure is relaible where for all we know our other procedures may just get it right half the time -- not sufficient success track record to justify a faith in it as a reliable belief procedure.

Given the tie between natural science and interaction with the physical world, it is not so far fetched to suggest that science is connected withour survival as a species and contribute to our fitness and so the only thing that needs to account for our having successful scientific procedurres in natural selection. We don't need God to explain the success of natural science. The cultural uses of reason (art, ethics, religion, philosophy, political thought, whether tables and chairs exist, etc.), on the other hand, are notoriously fuzzy and we have no sense of any track record of their success or failure with them. Even if they get it right half the time that is not an evidently reliable record to warrant faith in them. It could be just a case of dumb luck so we don't need God to explain those either. The are just epiphenomenal, even though they contribute the most to what constitutes the human mind. So we do not need to postulate God to account for the proper proportion of faith we put in our natural processes. Evolution is sufficient.

This, by the way, is why I was careful to call the reliability is question an assumption that mechanisms are "typically" or "standardly" reliable, which I distinguish from a statistical notion of reliability. This is a much weaker and non-precise notion of just taking something to be reliable for all practical purposes in cases where we cannot be more precise but have no reason to doubt it either. Maybe cognative science will come in someday and give us a better account, maybe not. It is clear that the sort of belief mechanisms that lead us to postulate God must also include relying on the cultural belief forming mechanisms and not just science and relying on them in a more stipulative way than we need to do scientific cases. Further, it is also relying on what must be "single-shot" belief forming mechanisms that only work once (as must be the case in beliefs about events) where no track record is possible even in principle. Here Plantinga's "proper function" account where a belief is warranted iff the belief forming mechanism does what it is supposed to. Here we have to postulate God because in order to have normative the normative aspect we need a mechanism Designer who works in single case settins. It is clear that the natural faith that supports theism is much mush weaker and is more genuinely a "faith" when it comes to our cultural beliefs than with scientific beliefs. Here is the area I think that Classical Apologetics has been most unforthcoming.

As far as the normativity issue goes, it still remains that even on a natural faith account natural beliefs about God are inadequate to do anything more than make mankind culpable for not seeking after God. Humans cannot use natural theology to develop an adequate approach to God and this is due to the seperation between man and God after the fall. Only communion with God that God initiates will help. But this has always been part of the account and presups have been terrible at misrepresenting Classical Apologetics here. This weakness is intrinsic as well as extrinsic. I don't believe in God on the basis of my natural belief forming mechanisms. Natural theology does not contribute to my religious creed. Everything that I believe in God about religiously is based on testimony only. The status of my opinions based on "natural faith" is as different as the content of such opinions.

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".