Faith and Epistemological Quicksand

Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel are well-known senior philosophers at Notre Dame and NYU, respectively. Plantinga, a Christian, is known for his contributions to philosophy of religion, while Nagel, an atheist, is known (nevertheless) for his resistance to purely materialist/naturalist/physicalist theories of the mind (e.g. in his famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?“).

Now Nagel has reviewed Plantinga’s most recent book in the NYRB, giving it a much more sympathetic reading than most naturalists would offer. (For what it’s worth, Plantinga is a supporter of Intelligent Design, and Nagel has often spoken of it approvingly, while not quite buying the whole sales pitch.) Jerry Coyne offers a reasonable dissection of the review.

I wanted to home in on just one particular aspect because it was instructive, at least for me. There is a long-standing claim that “faith” is a way of attaining knowledge that stands independently of other methods, such as “logic” or “empiricism.” I’ve never quite understood this — how do we decide what to have faith in, if not by the use of techniques such as logic and empiricism?

Plantinga offers an answer, which I think is at least internally consistent — but that’s part of the problem.

So far we are in the territory of traditional epistemology; but what about faith? Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)

Plantinga is clearly trying to separate “faith” from merely “things we would like to believe are true” — faith is knowledge that is put directly into our minds by God. Points for at least trying to offer a reason why we should put credence in beliefs based on faith even if the logic and/or evidence aren’t there.

Here, as I see it, is the problem. Any time we have beliefs of any sort, we need to admit the possibility that they are incorrect. Even if we have think that some result has been reached by nothing but the application of pristine mathematical logic (e.g. the ABC conjecture), it’s always possible that we simply made a mistake — have you ever multiplied two numbers together and gotten the wrong answer? Certainly in an empirical endeavor like science, we recognize that our theoretical understanding is necessarily contingent, and are constantly trying to do better, via more precise and far-reaching experimental tests. These are methods of reaching knowledge that have built-in methods of self-correction.

So what about faith? Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.

The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”

Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.

Okay, this is probably belaboring the obvious for atheists, and completely irrelevant for believers. But it’s useful to have a specific definition of “faith” right there on the page, if only to understand what its dangers are.

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92 Responses to Faith and Epistemological Quicksand

  1. quixote says:

    Science is concerned with measurable things. Faith is not. Whatever else it might be, it’s a feeling held by the faithful. To argue about evidence or proof or any of those useful scientific things seems rather misplaced. It would be like insisting on proof of someone’s statement that they like strawberry ice cream.

    There is never and can never be objective proof in the scientific sense for how somebody else feels about something. All we can do is take their word for it, and that’s true whether it’s their feelings about ice cream of God.

    Now, if they decide to take their feelings and use them to justify actions outside of themselves, that’s a whole different matter. It’s precisely because there can never be objective criteria for beliefs that secular laws must govern behavior.

    (Well, it makes sense to me. I’ll be curious to see if anyone else agrees or has similar thoughts. Mr. Anthony #19 seems to be on much the same wavelength.)

  2. Albanius says:

    I was greatly relieved to learn after checking just now, that Thomas Nagel is NOT (as I had assumed) the son of Ernst Nagel, who was a protege of the great naturalist philospher Morris Raphael Cohen, EN’s coauthor of Introduction to Logic and the Scientific Method.

  3. David says:

    Since the owl of Minerva only flies at night, we cannot hope to understand faith until we are past it. All the evidence seems to indicate that, with the exception of some geographical pockets, we’re heading toward that ‘enlightening’ night. Meanwhile, however: since our purpose here is to unite our purposes, I propose we would all be a lot further ahead if we read the more recent gospels of James and Dewey and Rorty. The old gospels – Xian and otherwise – are simply failing to assist us in the uniting of our purposes. Pragmatism, my friends. Everything else is, well … less than helpful.

  4. Matt K. says:

    Sean – Thanks for the interesting post.

    Plantinga’s point (as explained by Nagel) is that no “basic” way of forming beliefs can be checked, corrected and validated except by relying on itself. You can’t check whether a belief based on the senses is true except by using the senses. Same is true for beliefs based on memory or rational intuition. The justification for every belief is circular in that way. A radical skeptic argues this general sort of circularity is vicious; it defeats knowledge and justification. Plantinga and lots of others argue it isn’t vicious, and that wherever our belief forming equipment is reliable we know lots of things. Plantinga adds that faith is also part of our basic belief forming equipment.

    Given that argument, I don’t know what to make of your claim that with faith you give yourself no way to “legitimately” decide between two incompatible alternatives, as when I consider the possibility my faith-based belief in God is mistaken. Are you claiming that faith can’t be a source of knowledge or justified belief unless faith-based beliefs can be checked without using faith? If that’s your view, then how do you avoid the radical skepticism that comes from making the same demand on the senses, logical intuition, memory, etc.?

    Or (more likely) is your view that faith can’t function like our other basic belief forming equipment because it doesn’t include the possibility of even faith-based checking of faith-based belief? If that’s your view, I have to say I think it’s just false. There are lots of ways for faith to check itself, and some people actually use them. I look out my window and see camel walk by. I’m not just stuck with believing a camel is out there. I can go look closer. Likewise, I find myself with a faith based belief about God, I’m not just stuck with it. I can read scripture, consider arguments from theology or philosophy, pray for understanding, talk to nonbelievers, etc.

  5. Curious George says:

    Philosophy has not changed much since about 1200: God gave us faith – and that’s all that matters (they can turn an atheism into a faith easily). The proper place for them is the Mecca.

  6. Spiros M says:

    @Matt K. It seems to me that you are suggesting the use of all other methods (except from faith) of reasoning to justify your faith in God (read scripture critically, consider arguments, etc.) That is good and that is the point Sean is making. You CAN’T use faith to test faith, because you take faith on faith. By definition. And praying for understanding is equivalent to sitting down for a second and thinking to yourself: What is my honest, unbiased opinion about this aspect of my life? (well, equivalent up to the “Dear Lord…” part).

    The difference with the other methods of reasoning is not that faith (or divine inspiration) may be somehow flawed in arriving at the truth. It is the lack of the self-correcting mechanism that allows one to update their beliefs based on new evidence. As Sean said clearly in this post, you can’t update your belief in God if your only tool is faith (which requires a belief in (some) God in order to work in the first place.)

    As far as axioms of mathematics are concerned, they are also assumptions that can be updated in the face of evidence against their validity (and in fact, one of them Euclid’s 5th Postulate was updated – and was shown independent of his other axioms – after the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries.) Still, the power of faith to move us forward is immense. It is a fuel that propels us to ask questions and look for answers when we would otherwise feel gridlocked with indecision. So faith should be respected as the starting point and emotional backdrop for many great discoveries and human accomplishments. But using it as the main tool of arriving at the truth is like using a hammer to cut bread – it makes faith look useless even if it is really powerful.

  7. Brett says:

    That’s why religion is so dangerous and something that an intelligent race would have to evolve beyond in order to survive in the long run. I became an atheist from christian (including attending a christian school) because of the inability for anyone around me to even consider that we may be wrong in our beliefs. Do you know what they call someone who is absolutely convinced that their belief in a religion is correct despite the evidence? devout, strong, etc. Do you know what they call a scientist who is absolutely convinced their belief in a theory is correct despite the evidence? insane. That’s why science is not on the same level as religion; it’s superior. So to even compare the two as though they are in a battle is something a religious zealot would do; and scientists get dragged into the discussion because of those types of people.

  8. julianpenrod says:

    This may be removed because it will criticize another blogger on Discover, but there are a number of points to be made.
    With respect to Intelligent Design, in a recent “Bad Astronomy” blog, Phil Plait opined against “Young Earth Creationism”. Why the qualifier? Is Plait saying he is willing to accept creationism that involves an earth billions of years old? I dared to contradict and call him on some things he said and, like any insecure megalomaniac posing as a defender of truth, he banned me from his blog, so I couldn’t ask him. If anyone else can go on his blog, perhaps they can ask him about whether he supports creationism on a billions of years old earth.
    And it’s questionable just how unreasonable the idea of creationism is. The discovery of the new monkey species in Central Africa addresses this. A monkey is a large species to miss, especially given the enormous amounts of film, photographs, drawings and histories assembled in the last few centuries! Given the sudden explosion of new species, orders, families, genera, it looks like spontaneous generation, the emergence of life forms without precursors, is continuing.

  9. Johannes says:

    I’d like to point out that there is another position in the theistic (specifically Christian) camp which radically differs from that of Plantinga. The key issue is distinguishing faith from fideism.

    Faith is assenting to what has been revealed by God. But reason must be used to know, first that God exists, and secondly what specific entities or ensemble of entities are the medium that He has used to conduct his revelation. Faith is not a leap in the dark.

    Therefore there are two levels of knowledge related to faith. First the knowledge of the basic truths that form the base for faith, a knowledge which is acquired using reason, and then the knowledge of the revealed truths, which is acquired using faith.

    The most basic truth is the existence of God, and it can be grasped by reason based on the observation of the world and of man. That’s why St Paul blames the Gentiles in Romans 1:19-21 for not having acknowledged God.

    The next basic truths are that Jesus Christ is from God, and that a specific Church is the one founded and assisted by Jesus. These truths can be grasped by reason based on the “motives of credibility”, which are basically historical, unless you see a miracle. (To note, the Church part holds only for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxs, not for Protestants. Protestants have only the Bible.)

    From that base, the truths revealed by God through the Church (or through just the Bible for Protestants) are believed by faith.

    In short, faith is assenting to what is revealed by divine authority. But reason can and must be used to determine (on the basis of motives of credibility) who has divine authority. Otherwise, faith would be a leap in the dark.

    For anyone interested, this issue is extensively dealt with in this article and subsequent discussion:

    from which I quote this paragraph that deals directly with the quote from Plantinga:

    Plantinga treats belief in God’s existence as a properly basic belief. The notion that belief in God’s existence is properly basic is something alien to the Thomistic tradition. And that is because God is immaterial, whereas we know only through our five senses. Therefore until the beatific vision, our belief in God’s existence cannot be basic, but only by inference from causes, or by testimony. Plantinga treats God’s existence as “hard-wired,” as he does our belief in other minds, and the incorrigibility of perceptual beliefs, and belief in the past. But this very way of thinking about belief-formation, namely, as being hard-wired to form a true belief [i.e. that God exists] neither by inference nor by direct perception of God, disconnects intellect from reality. It does this by proposing that the intellect forms belief by a mechanism, rather than by receiving forms only through the senses. But from a Thomistic point of view, characterizing the intellect as jury-rigged to arrive at truth, rather than as directly perceiving the truth itself insofar as it is able through the senses, Plantinga’s epistemology starts already with a concession to skepticism, i.e. we’re already cut off from reality, and have to hope that this mechanism by which we arrive at beliefs is reliable.

  10. Doug says:

    @Blunt Instrument:
    Did you really just compare the random deaths of human being to… children being forced to eat vegetables? Ew. It’s always sad when you realize how awful the so-called “morals” of certain theists are.

  11. randommuser says:

    Perhaps a difference between the assumptions for science and the assumptions for religion is that those for science are so intuitive that nobody *really* question them, whereas many reasonable people do question the assumptions for religion. For example, if you honestly doubt the axioms of mathematics (together with all their implications), or the use of inductive reasoning, your day-to-day behavior would be radically different from what they are now. You would be unable to deduce why you need to eat, or go to work, or why it is fair to get two 10-dollar bills in exchange for a 20-dollar bill, and so on. We need to remind ourselves that science is based on these assumptions, but I don’t think anybody would seriously argue that this is why science is unreliable.

  12. Andy Johnson says:

    This is a welcome post, and useful discussion. I read the article this weekend and thought it quite odd how Nagel gives such a free ride to what appears to be little more than the usual theistic (Christian) claptrap about how faith can shore up one’s belief in science. Though granted I have not chewed through Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy (nor anything of Zizek’s for that matter…).

    Here are two passages of interest from the Nagel article that have thus far, however, received little attention in this discussion and that I find interesting and provocative. I don’t find them persuasive as rhetoric, but rather, as poetry. They speak to the vast gulf that separates believer and nonbeliever, and to the possibility of continued dialog between them.

    (1) “Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.”

    (2) ‘Christians, says Plantinga, can “take modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.” Can naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?’

    It was once the nonbeliever in defense of his views who was more in the position of one accused of a crime he knew in his heart he did not commit, all the “evidence” arrayed against him. (“It moves,” said Galileo.) And it was once the nonbeliever who felt that the truth in poetic tales (many called “Scripture” by believers) was more a magnificent display of the image of humanity in eternal form than an actual account of things or a form of worship. I do think naturalists today can say plenty to match this, though their saying often would be better suited in the impassioned thought and language of Nietzsche and Blake than in the all-too-literal conveyance of most of today’s defenders of truth.

    Sorry for the long post—it’s my first time.

  13. Neanderthal says:

    So your god is still designing and creating “badly designed” living creatures? Or is the world getting smaller due to the Internet, more sharing of information, such that the probability of information reaching qualified people is much higher than before? Which of these two statements are most reasonable – magic or more accessible information?

  14. Matt Bright says:

    Great post – and the relative absence of shouty believers suggests it’s also a telling one. I’m on a Christian website that claims to welcome non-believers, doing my usual thing of at least trying to understand how it is they come to believe what they believe.

    I’ve engaged someone who doesn’t seem to think I already know this and am simply trolling/in denial. He appears, (at least up until now), to be happy to address individual questions directly as if they were honestly meant and not some kind of trap (which is the usual mess one gets into at this point).

    We’ve got as far as the usual assertion that atheists are limited because they won’t consider evidence to support a belief from ‘strong personal intuition’ or from appeals to the ‘utility’ of that belief (this last one is new to me). I’ve said that I would consider these things if it can be explained to me how I begin to do so, and what I do when evidence from one source contradicts evidence from another (I’ve given him my usual example of a sunrise – my strong personal intuition when experiencing a sunrise is that I’m standing still on a flat plain, and we both know I’m wrong, so…). I’ve been clear that he can even appeal to non-materialist elements/entities, all I want at this point is an understanding of how I use them in some sort of systematic way.

    Apparently, however, even requesting some sort of framework for thinking about evidence from ‘personal revelation’ or ‘utility’ is a ‘somewhat materialist’ approach. Indeed, even trying to get him to explain to me what ‘utility’ means in this context appears to be an example of my closed-minded ‘tyrrany of logic’.

    So I’ve finally cracked and asked how I’m supposed to think at all in the absence of clear definitions of words and ways that I can think about them. He’s gone a bit quiet since then. Do they know, do you think, that this is where it all breaks down? Or does something in their heads kick in that actively blocks out this sort of train of thought? Either way, I’m beginning to think that some sort of deep level cognitive speciation is going on…

  15. Blunt Instrument says:

    @ Doug – 36

    Please do not assume that I am a theist. My comments were intended to show the poor reasoning of that statement, not to make any moral claims.

    If god exists, his/her knowledge would be far superior to our own. Therefore, we could not comprehend the reasons for his/her action or inaction . In that way, we would be as small children are to their parents. Therefore, one cannot prove/disprove the existence of god based on the existence of random suffering in the world.

  16. IA says:

    Your own reasoning is quite poor. Children grow up into big children who understand their parents’ actions, and even a child forced to eat vegetables can understand and know that they’re good for his body and growth. The existence of random suffering in the world suggests that if there is a God, he does not interfere with human affairs, and evolution further suggests that he has interfered with little else in millions of years. The extent of this God’s knowledge is thus as irrelevant. Theists are left with a God of the gaps, and cosmologists are leaving that wispy deity fewer and fewer places to hide.

  17. vmarko says:

    @ Matt (40):

    “So I’ve finally cracked and asked how I’m supposed to think at all in the absence of clear definitions of words and ways that I can think about them.”

    Be very careful what you are asking for here. 🙂

    There are no clear definitions of words. Everything is based on our “intuitive” meaning of some words. There is also no unique way of thinking about words, even if you accept that there is some intuitive agreed-upon meaning for each word (i.e. axioms of logic are in fact arbitrary and not unique in any sense).

    For example, everything in science is defined up to math. Everything in math is defined up to logic. Everything in logic is defined up to “semantic meaning” of the syntax. The semantic meaning is defined up to the meta-language (say, English, or some other real-world language). The meta-language is assumed to be understood intuitively, with no clear definitions.

    So in a sense, there is no way to “clearly define” anything at all. Every math student with some amount of training in mathematical logic can tell you that. 🙂

    If you do not understand someone’s language, it may very well be down to you not having appropriate intuitive understanding of the language, rather than them not having clear definitions. The best you can do is to ask them to help you build your intuition to grasp the meaning of words you do not understand. And they may or may not be willing to spend time on that. 😉

    Insisting on clear definitions sometimes really is a “tyrrany of logic”. For example, I could also say that I don’t believe a single theorem of math until you give me a clear definition of “set” and of “true” and “false”. Since it is impossible to give such definitions, my denial of math theorems would be a “tyrrany of logic” in the same sense.

    HTH 🙂

  18. Mr. Anthony says:

    @Matt (40):

    I think you may have hit on something: anti-theists should pose on religious sites as believers who are having a ‘crisis of faith’ and need help. Spread the doubt!

    Ok, a wee tad bit unethical.

  19. Blunt Instrument says:

    @ IA

    even a child forced to eat vegetables can understand and know that they’re good for his body and growth
    Do you have children? Very small children are incapable of understanding this. You give 18 month-olds too much credit.

    evolution further suggests that he has interfered with little else in millions of years.
    Why is his interference in natural selection necessary to prove his existence?

    if there is a God, he does not interfere with human affairs
    You presuppose that god would choose to interfere in human affairs to alleviate random suffering. Perhaps you or I would choose to do this. But why should god?

    The extent of this God’s knowledge is thus as irrelevant.
    Irrelevant to you, perhaps, because you desire something that is not as it is. But why does god’s lack of action to eliminate human suffering mean that he/she is irrelevant?

    Children grow up into big children who understand their parents’ actions
    So perhaps there is hope for you, as well.

  20. Matt Bright says:

    @vmarko – you may not be able to absolutely define ‘set’, ‘true’ or ‘false’ but you can at least give me a set of axioms – rules for using these words to do maths with that are acceptably self-consistent , don’t lead to contradictions and allow me to construct meaningful chains of reasoning and assess the reasoning of others’in terms of the axioms provided. If my maths teacher told me I could only understand set theory by ‘building my intuition’ about what he or she might mean I’d be a bit bewildered.

    @Mr Anthony – I’m not doing that, where have I said I’m doing that?

  21. sjn says:

    Believers who claim that “science requires faith” or that religious faith is somehow similar to scientific “faith” forget that a scientific claim must be testable, or better yet, have predictive power, neither of which is true for religious faith-based claims. Also, scientific claims must be falsifiable, and religious claims aren’t. That’s why people are essentially free to harbor very weird beliefs if those beliefs are not subject to falsification, e.g., I’m free to believe in god or invisible unicorns because I can’t provide a proof of their nonexistence. However, suppose there was a religion whose believers had faith that they could jump off tall buildings and fly. This, apparently, is not too common since that belief is readily falsifiable.

  22. James Goetz says:

    Hi Sean, on a tangent, per mathematical logic, Could there be any mistake in the logic that a completed infinite elapse of time is impossible? For example, proposing a completed infinite elapse of time is as logical as saying never-ending time ends. And if this logic is unequivocally wrong, then why is there any justification for proposing a non-zero Hamiltonian value that requires a completed infinite elapse of time? Such proposals also look like epistemological quicksand.

  23. MarkS says:

    Sean, I’m neither a scientist nor a theologian, but here’s my take on the question. You understand the Christian position: “faith is knowledge that is put directly into our minds by God.” That’s why it’s often called the gift of faith. The barrier you can’t get past is in your statement, “The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives.” If faith truly is a gift put in your head by God, then those blessed with the gift of faith have no need to “decide” that at all. God tells them. To decide using reason is a whole ‘nother domain of acquiring knowledge, sometimes at odds with faith. I think it’s why Martin Luther said reason is the enemy of faith. Sean, you may not be comfortable leaving reason behind, but then, you don’t have the gift of faith, do you?

  24. chemicalscum says:

    An epistemological quicksand, what an apt phrase and Plantinga is up to his neck in it.