The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Monday, January 16, 2006

Acts of Faith Are, Strictly Speaking, Irrational

There are lots of things I would do differently were I *certain* that God--under the Christian description--exists. Or at least I would if I were rational and my higher-order desires were regnant. It is not, I think, rationally appropriate for very many people to be *certain* that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob exists (in the sequel I'll drop the proviso, but it should be understood as being in force). The caveat is reserved for persons with especial religious experiences. The rest of us are subject to ambiguous evidence. Where in that vague middle ground the appropriate rational confidence lies depends on one's particular perspective--to what evidence they are privy and to what principles of evidence they subscribe. My own range of confidence varies for the most part between 40% and 90% (like Olympic judges, I have omitted the extrema--the times when either proposition seems perfectly evident to me).

Now what of these lots of things I said I'd be doing if I were certain that God existed? Should I be doing them? The properly pastoral answer seems to be "yes"? I am called to perfect holiness and obedience to the Gospel. This seems to be in conflict with a standard conception of rationality--one which I endorse. According to (a very abbreviated version of) this conception of rationality an act is rational only if it maximizes expected utility. The latter is calculated very simply as the product of my degree of expectation and the desirability of the outcome. Sometimes this is called "instrumental rationality" or "economic rationality", but I don't think those are very flattering terms. One worry that needs to be dispelled is that this kind of rationality would lead to extreme caution or kill spontaneity. That's simply a fallacy: one might find spontaneity quite desirable and thus spontaneous behavior would be quite rational. In fact thinking rationally is as likely to lead one to greater fun as less: people often avoid fun behavior because of the small risk of serious but not devastating danger. "Let's ride our bikes down that hill." "No. It's too dangerous." "The probability is quite low that you'll, say, break your hand off, and that wouldn't be as bad as a life devoid of fun, so the rational thing to do is to take the plunge." QED

But I digress. Let us take it as an axiom of Christian Discipleship that I ought to strive to do what I truly believe I would do were I certain that God exists and free from irrational or sinful barriers. I think the latter description represents a kind of regulative ideal (though it may need some tightening up upon scrutiny). But, strictly speaking, such actions will be irrational given that I'm *not* certain that God exists. There seem to be four general types of response to this line of thought: 1. Embrace it; 2. Reject the standard notion of rationality; 3. Find a flaw in the reasoning; 4. Find a way "around" the conclusion.

I'm hesitant to embrace the conclusion, yet I can find no flaw in the reasoning, so that leaves me two choices. It is a very pious-sounding strategy to advert to a "deeper" rationality or go postmodern as our friends in the "Reformed" tradition have such a wont to do these days, but I don't think that's fruitful. In fact, as long as this "deeper" notion of rationality doesn't entail the standard notion, then it will still imply that acts of faith are irrational in the ordinary sense and that's just to embrace the conclusion. Wrapping the problem in some larger cloak of mystery does not make the problem go away.

My own attempted evasion does, however, sound enough like the pious strategy that I could probably get by with foisting it upon people as a version of it. It is generally acknowledged that there are times when long-run or all-thing-considered rationality requires short-run apparent irrationality. I'm currently working on adapting a case from Fred Feldman's _Doing the Best You Can_ to articulate the response I have in mind. I'll post it as soon as I get it worked out.

19 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 25, 2006 9:43:00 AM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

Isn't faith believing what you aren't certain of? When I'm having one of my raging wars with doubt, I use the defense that by my belief in what may not exist I bring about what I hope for. I have no idea what that sounds like in fancy philosopher speak, but I continue to do what I would do if perfect holiness existed because I want perfect holiness to exist. This may have nothing to do with the argument you are advancing, but if what you are really hoping for is an advance in your behavior I've found it very helpful.

 
At Wednesday, January 25, 2006 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

I think that's far too broad a definition of faith. Since it's irrational to be certain of very much, almost all that we believe we believe without certainty. That would make almost all of our beliefs matters of faith. I think that might trivialize the nature of faith. I hasten to add that in some sense faith pervades all our beliefs. As Lewis points out in the early chapters of _Miracles_ you can't use reason to defend reason, you can only accept it as an axiom and build on it consistently.

Your second idea is not entirely unrelated to my idea. First, one caveat though: it is no good believing something because you want it to be true and acting as if it is true is not necessarily made rational by your wanting it to be true. I'm not sure if what you said implies that, but I wanted to be clear that I reject arguments from Wish Fulfillment: they would justify star-gazing and a host of irrational behavior.

Rather, the idea is that it is rational to continue on a path even if you have serious doubts about whether the path will reach the desired destination as long as you desire the destination enough and the path is the best chance you've got.

The paradigm example is Sam and Frodo on the road to Mordor: they had to doubt at times whether they would ever make it, perhaps even believe that it was very unlikely. However, continuing on was clearly the rational thing to do given the alternatives and their strong desire to save Middle Earth. In that sense Faith, Doubt, and Rationality are unitied in a Mental Trinity.

I take this to show that Faith is primarily a matter of desire and obedience not a matter primarily of belief. "I believe, help thou my unbelief."

 
At Wednesday, January 25, 2006 3:57:00 PM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

I believe in wishes and St. Nicholas and all sorts of irrational stuff, including the efficacy of reason. What I am trying to say is that even if God does not exist I make the world more like it would be if he did when I behave in that manner. By loving others as selflessly as I can, I help create a world sustained by selfless love.

Now, if you don't mind, would you tell me what I just said, and if it agrees with you or not? :)

 
At Thursday, January 26, 2006 6:13:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

Those are not irrational beliefs. I'm using "irrational" in a strict sense here, not just to mean "things secular humanists might not like."
If you mean that you would continue to live a life of selfless sacrifice even if you *knew* (for sure) there was no God, then that's where we differ. I would be the New Nietzsche proclaiming the death of God and calling on people to reject the slave-morality of Judeo-Christianity and march on toward master-morality that gets things done.

As it is I don't know for sure (and anyone who thinks they do is either a Saint or a Fool) whether God exists, and so acting like he does is not immediately rational. However, this situation resembles some disputed cases in rationality theory and I'm investigating those now.

 
At Friday, January 27, 2006 9:12:00 AM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

I've always liked learning new things from you.

I'd never prefer anything to God. He makes my life not so lonely. Even when I'm not sure he's there, it's comforting to hope he might be. Maybe God is just my "Wilson". It is difficult for me to imagine a "master morality" that would have enough strength since it would have no personality. Human beings like to follow a being. Ideas have some strength, but not enough to hold us for the long term or in enough numbers to accomplish the work of perfecting humanity.

Of course, I'm of the mind that our perfection will have to be a gift, but that's a little off the point.

 
At Friday, January 27, 2006 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

I think it's fine to draw comfort from God and for God to fulfill emotional needs. However--and I'm not accusing you of this, only clarifying--it would be a cognitive suicide to *believe because* of that. The order is Fact-Faith-Fulfilment. Switching the order in any way leads to problems.

Oh, believe me master morality has personality: every heard a speech by Hitler?

 
At Saturday, January 28, 2006 4:23:00 PM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

What kind of problems? I don't place as high a value on my cognitive faculties as perhaps I ought. I mean really, what can we expect from a squishy couple pounds of tissue. I place a greater premium on this unnameable thing inside me--my soul, my heart, the Holy Spirit. People are sure they know the answers, but I find that once you try to really look at your experience it gets harder. Limiting our research into God to the cognitive level feels safer, but my experience has proven that a lie.

I was giving "master morality" the benefit of the doubt. I don't think that every subscriber of Nietzsche's thoughts is equivalent to Hitler. I don't think you do either, but I felt that it was important to keep the opposition human when it's appropriate. Your point is a good one, none-the-less.

Do the experiences of the Saints count as facts?

 
At Saturday, January 28, 2006 9:47:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

No one beside Kant and his followers are suggesting "Limiting our research into God to the cognitive level." Our rational ability to go beyond mere sense experience to abstract truths via rational intuition is *one* of those transcendent things inside you. It is a check and balance on human fancy and enthusiasm, which, history demonstrates so clearly, can carry folks away on the wings of wish-fulfillment.

On my old website my icon was the ship--one of the most ancient of Christian icons. Here's an adaptation of something I read somewhere:

"A passionate person with out reason is like a ship without a rudder: tossed about on every wind and wave of doctrine.
A person with reason but not passion is like a ship without a sail: sitting stagnant at port with no hope on the horizon."

The key is to harness the power of the wind--the pneuma, the spirit--while steering clear of our own personal Scyllae and Charibdes.

I was not suggesting for a moment that "every subscriber of Nietzsche's thoughts is equivalent to Hitler." I was responding to the charge that slave morality lacked personality. Please let's stay on track.

The experiences of the saints certainly count as facts.

 
At Sunday, January 29, 2006 7:46:00 PM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

Tracks are so dull. :) I didn't think that's what you meant, and that's what I said. I do admit to being terribly random which makes it difficult to communicate with me.

I think it is the wish fulfillment thing that is bothering me. I'm not sure why. Feeling my way there in the dark, I think I'm being protective of the new freedom I've discovered in following my wishes. I've discovered that they are a way of seeking God. Isn't that the whole "He will give you the desires of your heart" thing? I grew up way too fundamentalist, so I heard sermons taking two different views on interpreting that verse. Being me I hold both. I believe that he gives us what we wish for and that he puts the wishes in our hearts.

I've been captivated by the image St. Paul gave us that "in Him we live and move and have our being." My personal experience makes it impossible for me to heart that verse as anything other than an image of pregnancy. Pregnancy is such a unique time. You are one person and yet you are two people. You do everything for this little being and yet that little being isn't you. I am really struggling to get this out of the realm of being and into the realm of becoming. I'll think on it some more and see if I can't express why I keep attempting to deal with some issue your posts keeps bumping.

 
At Monday, January 30, 2006 2:56:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

God can't grant the wish that he exists if he doesn't, nor could he put anything in your heart.

To believe something in the basis of wish fulfillment is misuse of our (God-given) cognitive and affective faculties, that's all I'm saying.

What we *hope* for will certainly be directed by our affections, and hope can perform most of the functions of belief, but the two are distinct.

Believe what the evidence indicates and hope for the best.

What's rational is to act on the basis of the unlikely if it's most likely of all the unlikely ways of getting what we hope for.

The last comment seems pregnant with meaning. ;-)>

 
At Monday, January 30, 2006 8:38:00 PM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

No news on that front, but I am rather predictable that way.

I asked you if the experiences of the saints count as facts because I'm not sure where to put the evidence of my experience. I've had many experiences of the presence of God. On the good days I can nod along in perfect understanding with Brother Lawrence. I've even had an experience some might call an ecstasy, but I've been trained to doubt all of that. I've been instead trained to rely on doctrine. Doctrine has given me some serious grief, but following my heart hasn't. It isn't easy, but the results are reliably good. Doctrine, not so much. Is this a personality, gifts, temperament issue or is it that I'm just wrong?

 
At Monday, January 30, 2006 9:21:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

There is no inherent tension between doctrine and religious experience. Thus, I think it's a balance thing.

 
At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 1:19:00 PM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

Many thanks. I feel much better.

 
At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 6:57:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

I aim to please. :-)>

 
At Wednesday, February 01, 2006 8:43:00 AM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

But wait there's more. :)

I was pondering the Master Morality/Hitler thing, and I came to wonder if there was some parallel with the Judeo/Christian system and Jesus.

If that is so then how do we see the relationship between them? Do we see it as the system creates the personality, the personality creates the system, or does each take the opposite path?

Since I believe in divine revelation I would say that the Judeo/Christian system proceeds from the Christ, and that that makes the personality preeminent over the system.

Would this suggest that relationship triumphs over doctrine?

I like to win. Not that we are arguing. I'm arguing with SS teachers who have forgotten I exist.

Can't wait to hear what you have to say.

 
At Wednesday, February 01, 2006 12:47:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

While it is true that the tri-personal God is the source of all morality, the Divine Law--the Law issuing from his Will must always be in accordance with the Eternal Law--the Law emanating from the unchanging and unchangeable Divine Nature.

The whole point of
Catholic Natural Law Theory is that the two are in *perfect* harmony and at root one. If you're interested in this theory the article on Natural Law at www.NewAdvent.org will give you plenty of details (I'd provide the direct link, but I'm composing off-line).

This is, by the way, the solution to the Euthyphro problem summarized over at my class blog http://logicandinquiry.blogspot.com.

 
At Thursday, February 02, 2006 7:16:00 AM, Blogger Christine Ansorge said...

Thanks, I'll look into it. I appreciate the pointers.

 
At Monday, January 29, 2007 6:28:00 AM, Blogger Vlastimil Voh├ínka said...

Trent,
I suppose you know that one can try to use Pascal's Wager to show that acts of faith are, strictly speaking (i.e., in your sense), rational.

 
At Monday, January 29, 2007 11:15:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

That's just what I'm not so sure of. It was thinking about Pascal's wager that lead to this post. I'm quite sure Pascal showed it to be rational in some sense, but I'm sure you're aware that paradoxes and problems in decision theory provide pressure to distinguish senses of rationality--for example Newcombe-type problems drive a wedge between utility maximization and dominance, both of which seem rational.

My main point here is that faith calls us to total comminment, yet following this call entails, for the uncertain, going beyond our actual credence.

 

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