The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Monday, March 19, 2007

Faith and Rationality

More theological stuff. This time a snippet from a correspondence from the last couple days.
Background: I'd been asked by someone from Europe to answer some questions concerning the application of probability and statistics to philosophy of religion. After doing so, I received the following follow up:

I am very thankful for you giving me these points. They are very interesting and I like it.Also, I would love to get your paper when Swinburne has sent it back to you. I am quite interested in the fine-tuning argument (awaiting Collins' book on the subject). Now a little off-topic question:I am actually a doubting christian which has huge problems at the moment gripping on my christian faith. Books such as Non-existence of God by N. Everitt (have you read it or seen any good reviews of it?) drives me the way more toward atheism. Do you have any advice on how I can tackle the doubt? What arguments do you think is the best for theism? Every argument is so much discussed that it is impossible to conclude anything. Books are critically reviewed so that one stands there not knowing much what to think about that particular issue. Maybe you got some points to make? I would be thankful.

I’m on my way to class, but I want to make some brief remarks. First, I’m privileged to be your interlocutor on this subject. Next, let me say that I don’t think that philosophy of religion has that much to do with the rationality of Christian commitment. I’m not quite the philosophical skeptic that Peter van Inwagen is, but it is true that philosophical arguments are in general unsatisfying on most topics. I do happen to think the Kalam cosmological argument is quite strong, but that is again a technical argument.

It would be difficult to go through my whole epistemological theory, but in the end I think that inference to the best explanation is a legitimate form of inference, and, as I said, think that probabilistic reasoning just makes it more precise. In general, though I do think that the philosophical case for theism is inconclusive, I find atheistic/materialistic naturalism to be utterly bankrupt. The only thing which really causes me grave doubts are cases of apparent gratuitous suffering. This subtracts considerable credence from my confidence in theism. It probably locks up a good 10-20% of my confidence. If I didn’t find CORNEA principles plausible it would probably take up more, occasionally, in dark moments it seems conclusive, but those times have the aspect of emotion/depression/pessimism about them rather than rational insight.

Still, there are innumerable other phenomena which I can’t even come close to reconciling to naturalism: the origin of matter and energy, the kinds of fundamental laws there are, human consciousness, our moral sense, true altruism, the kind of love I have for my children, the life of Jesus and of the Saints, the works of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, milkshakes, umbrellas, and, among other things, this conversation.
True, there are alternative explanations for all these phenomena, but they strike me as pale and strained. *On balance* theism strikes me as the better explanation and so I think it true.

More to come, must go now…

I’ve got two papers I’ve been asked to revise and resubmit and I’ve just been asked to review a MS for a publisher, so I’m just going to have to trickle out thoughts as they come to me, I hope you don’t mind.

Another issue concerns the nature of faith. I do not think faith is a doxastic attitude. I think faith is a commitment one makes to following a certain path. I can do no better than Swinburne has done in the epilogue to the first edition of his _Faith and Reason_. My confidence in Christianity goes up and down all the time, not only from day to day, but from hour to hour (even from second to second when I’m wrestling with evil). But even when it dips dangerously low, perhaps even below half for some brief period of time, I retain my faith because I retain my commitment to the Christian Way. This commitment is quite rational for broadly Pascalian reasons.

Pascal’s Wager has been sorely misrepresented. It is not some kind of crass, mercenary maneuver aimed at “just in case”. Rather, it is a reflection of the fact that rationality in action is as much a function of our desires as of our credence. If I thought there was 1/100 chance that a given guru in Tibet could bring me true enlightenment and lasting happiness I’d be a fool not to go because I so greatly value those things. So even though I’d be pretty certain there was no such Guru it would still be positively irrational not to try and find out for sure, not to make the trek.

In my view, Christianity is a trek. As I go to Mass, pray the Rosary, partake of the Sacraments, I do so with hope. Hope that there is in fact a loving God which has given me the gift of the Church to put me in tangible touch with Christ. My intellectual confidence that this is the case goes up and down, sometimes very high and sometimes much lower. But because I so desire peace with God and because I think Christian Theism to be the best explanation of my life’s experience, it never ceases to be rational for me to walk the Christian Way.



At Monday, March 19, 2007 8:51:00 PM, Blogger AmandaLaine said...

That was very helpful to me. Thank you for posting your very honest thoughts. Anything else you've got, I'm listening.

Thanks again!

At Tuesday, March 20, 2007 2:26:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

Thanks! Any requests? I'm assuming you are not this Amanda Laine:

At Friday, March 23, 2007 9:15:00 PM, Blogger MikeZ said...

I found your blog by way of "Socratic Logic", and a note in the Amazon reviews that the errata might be found near here. I have the 1st edition - if the errata are around, could you please give me a pointer?

I usually don't leap into a blog without reading a while, but your topic "... some questions concerning the application of probability and statistics to philosophy of religion", struck home. I've just finished reading an article in "First Things" (which you may know) titled "Faith and Quantum Theory", by Stephen M Barr, theoretical particle physicist at U Delaware. The article is behind a subscription site (at least for a month or so), but you may be able to find the March 2007 issue in a bookstore. He talks about probabilities (I doubt that statistics sheds any light), and in the end it's more about physics than faith, but there is a brief connection.

If you're a fundamentalist logician (by which I mean "logic is all"), then you might not be able to find a Socratic, Aristotelian path to Faith.

My thought is that there have been quote a few bright people (and not at all in Dennet's sense) who have come to Christianity later in life, sometimes from atheism. I have as examples, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, T. S. Eliot, and G. K. Chesterton. It may be argued that more than a few other bright people have come to the opposite conclusion (especially Russell). While that's true, I find myself more persuaded by the first group than by the second. (Chesterton might have been thinking about the raft of current books, like Harris', when he said, "If there were no God, there would be no atheists." Indeed, I often wonder if those book-writing atheists spend any time at all not thinking about God.)

Then there are the Founding Fathers (another bright bunch). Jefferson wouldn't fit in in many Protestant churches today; Tom Paine said something like "I believe in God; everything else is the work of man" (echoing Newton's "God made the integers, everything else is the work of man".)

(I've added your blog to my List.

"Counsel of Trent", indeed. That's nicea.)

At Saturday, March 24, 2007 9:47:00 PM, Blogger AmandaLaine said...

No, no particular requests. I am just a person with a lot of questions about ... everything, but, primarily my faith. I do not have a MySpace but my blog is here:

At Saturday, March 24, 2007 9:54:00 PM, Blogger AmandaLaine said...

I do have a request! I have heard, all my life, about the differences between catholicism and protestantism. Could you elucidate why you left protestantism and turned to catholicism? I am very curious to understand the catholic movement better. (This is for my understanding not for me to disagree with you, even though I am protestant.)

Thank you!! Enjoy your blog!

At Monday, March 26, 2007 9:17:00 AM, Blogger Vlastimil Vohánka said...


I wonder what "CORNEA principles" means.


At Monday, March 26, 2007 9:37:00 AM, Blogger Vlastimil Vohánka said...

And now, something not completely different.

Alvin Plantinga recently commented (at Stanford Enc. of Philosophy) on the epistemology of religion: "Here there are fundamentally two views. According to 'evidentialism', the source of positive epistemic status for religious belief, if indeed it has such status, is just reason—the ensemble of rational faculties including, preeminently, perception, memory, rational intuition, testimony, and the like. ... On this view, the existence of cogent arguments for a religious belief is required for rational acceptance of that belief, or at any rate is intimately related to rational acceptance. Some who endorse this view believe there aren't any such cogent arguments; accordingly they reject religious belief as unfounded and rationally unacceptable ... others hold that in fact there are excellent arguments for theism and even for specifically Christian belief. Here the most prominent contemporary spokesperson would be Richard Swinburne, whose work over the last 30 years or so has resulted in the most powerful, complete and sophisticated development of natural theology the world has so far seen ... The other main view, one adopted by, for example, both Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae) and John Calvin (1559), is that belief in God in the first place, and in the distinctive teachings of Christianity in the second, can be rationally accepted even if there are no cogent arguments for them from the deliverances of reason; they have a source of warrant or positive epistemic status independent of the deliverances of reason."

Note that evidentialism, as defined above, does not require that one has to know cogent argument for her religious belief. It is sufficient that such an argument exists.
Now, I wonder: which view is preferred by the Catholic Church (if any)? The first, or the second one?

It seems to me that it is the first one - evidentialism. This is so, I think, at least with respect to the belief that God exists. This seems to me on the basis of some sayings made by orthodox catholic Czech philosophers I know, or by J.-H. Nicolas (a distinguished French theologian), or by the ex-priest Anthony Kenny (in his books Five Ways and What is Faith?). E.g., J.-H. Nicolas, in his book God in Trinity, says that acts of faith (by its content) somehow implicitly implies that it is possible for humans to know God's existence and attributes by the light of reason. If my hunches are right, Plantinga's suggestion, that Aquinas - a Catholic par excellence - is not an evidentialist, is problematic.

However, maybe the Catholic Church holds evidentialism only with respect to the belief that God exists (and has such and such attributes), but with respect to other religious beliefs (like those about the Trinity, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Atonement, etc.) the existence /epistemic accessibility/ of cogent arguments is not required. I don't know. What do you think?

Thank you very much.

At Monday, March 26, 2007 11:18:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

Finishing up some projects, but just wanted to say that CORNEA stands for "Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access". It was coined--I'm pretty sure--by Stephen Wykstra of--I'm pretty sure--Calvin College.

The idea--very roughly--is that I can only take appearances to be indicative of reality if I have some reason to think I am epistemically up to par in the case.

One way to think about it is like this: It tells us when absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If I can't find evidence that you're a latent TB virus carrier just from looking at you, that's no evidence in and of itself that you aren't a carrier because the property of being a latent TB virus carrier is not one I have reasonable epistemic access via mere sense perception.
The application in theology is that just because we can't think of a reason why God might allow so much evil of such terrible kinds is no evidence that He doesn't have one: we should not expect to discern it even if it were there.

At Monday, March 26, 2007 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...


First, major cool-points for the "nicea" comment.

I'm a dedicated ROFTER and Barr is one of my favorite contributors. Unfortunately I found his comments in "The Design of Evolution" on probabilities much more helpful than in this recent piece. I think he has a wrong interpretation of the relevant probabilities. He takes a purely epistemic interp whereas I think dispositional probabilities are called for in this case.

The difference this makes is that Barr's statement that probabilities must culminate in actualities to exist is simply false. He used this thesis as a lemma in an argument for the preferability of the (toned-down) Copenhagen interp of QM over and against the Bohmian account. So a dispositional account of probabilities undercuts his argument for Copenhagen. I'm a dedicated Bohmian. For a great article thereupon check this out.

PS - As far as I can tell, I'm not a fundamentalist logician, though it depends on the scope of "all" in "logic is all". As a good Aristotelian I recognize that experience provides the premises for logic

At Monday, March 26, 2007 11:45:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...


Plantinga has generated more confusion than clarity regarding faith and reason. The first thing to keep in mind is the distinction between standard epistemological evidentialism (these are the guys I'm doing my PhD with) and what he calls "evidentialism" regarding religion. There are versions of Plantinga's Aquinas-Calvin model which are consistent with epistemological evidentialism and some which aren't. It all depends on how you spell out some of the relevant details.

Also, note that Aquinas says in the beginning of the Summa Contra Gentiles that even though arguments for the existence of God exist, it is fittng that people accept it on the basis of the authority of the Church since few (at that time especially) had the time and talent to think through such arguments in detail. And the anti-evidentialist Plantinga thinks there are many good arguments for the existence of God. In fact, the thinks there are TWO DOZEN (OR SO) THEISTIC ARGUMENTS worthy of consideraton. He also sees the necessity of responding to problems like Evil, Pluralism, Hiddenness, Naturalism etc.

There's a great review of his book Warranted Christian Belief in Books and Culture from back around 2003, 2004. I think it raises many serious objections.

At Monday, March 26, 2007 2:47:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...


As it so happens, I'm currently composing a post on why I became Catholic in response to many requests. You ask "Could you elucidate why you left protestantism and turned to catholicism?"

As a philosopher I first have to give the obvious answer: because I think the Claims of the Catholic Church regarding her authority are true and incompatible with Protestantism. Note that I designate a sub-class of claims of the Catholic Church, namely those regarding the Church's authority. Most claims of the Church are perfectly compatible with Protestantism (well, with magisterial Protestantism anyway, part of the problem is that there are like 30,000 (literally) different protestant denominations (if you count all the independent ones separately) so making claims about what "Protestants" believe can be tricky: most Catholic doctrine is compatible with Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Evangelical beliefs).

What Mother Kirk claims is that she is the fullest expression of the visible Church on Earth and that the Bishop of Rome is the final authority in matters of the Faith and governance of the Church. The basis for this claim is the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. I've got a brief summary of some evidence for this doctrine here, and am working on a draft of a fuller argument. So the basic claims of the Church are as follows:
1. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, promised in the Old Testament, and expanding his plan to we Gentiles.
2. Jesus founded a visible Church to carry on his teachings and selected the Apostles to govern this body.
3. Peter was the Chief of the Apostles as witnessed by Peter's divine anointing and unique reception of the Keys of the Kingdom (Matt 16) which represent the vice-regent of the King, his special relationship with Jesus ("feed my sheep," Gospel of John, Chatper 21), and his authoritative pronouncement at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
4. The Apostles anointed new leaders--called Bishops (episkopos in the Greek New Testament)--and when an Apostle died, someone took their place (just like occurred with the loss of Judas at the beginning of The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament).
5. The line of Apostolic Succession has never been broken.

The doctrine of Salvation among Catholics and Mainline and (many or most) Evangelical Protestants are essentially the same (no more differences than among some Protestants): we are given the Gift of Faith to trust in the finished work of Christ in atonement for our sins. The rest is details.

As a Protestant I already accepted #1 of course, but gradually came to believe the rest of them as well. There's much, much more to the story, but a sufficient condition for my becoming Catholic was being rationally persuaded of #'s 2-5 (in addition to #1).

This is just the bare bones and only states the minimum sufficient condition, so stay tuned for a more robust answer. Hope that helps.

At Tuesday, March 27, 2007 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Øystein said...

Hey, Trent!

I am a bit confused regarding Alvin Plantinga. As his book "Warranted Christian Belief" is on my priority-reading list, I was a little surprised when you talked about criticisms of it. How is he wrong? Should I actually get the book at all?

At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 3:34:00 AM, Blogger Vlastimil Vohánka said...

As for an instructive critique of Plantinga, I highly recommend Timothy McGrew's and Lydia McGrew's

At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 3:48:00 AM, Blogger Vlastimil Vohánka said...

And and

Maybe the most exciting philosophical/theological articles I've ever read! (Plus John DePoe's .)

McGrews also have a new book on epistemology called Internalism and Epistemology, a great counterpart to Plantinga's books on warrant.


At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 6:08:00 AM, Blogger Øystein said...

Okey. So, I should not buy it? What about Swinburne's Epistemic Justification? I have seen that Trent has reviewed it in Philosophia Christi...

At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

I endorse the recommended readings contra Plantinga. Whether you should buy that book or the Swinburne book depends on the state of your funds. If you are interested in academic epistemology then, in my opinion, you certainly ought to by the Swinburne book. If not, then perhaps not.

If you are interested in academic philosophy of religion then you probably ought to by the Plantinga book due to its huge influence alone. It is a very book book and rewards a careful reader as pretty much anything by Plantinga does. I've read the book many times and never fail to learn something. Again, I think it's misguided in many places, but engaging it is a rewarding experience.

At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 1:40:00 PM, Blogger Øystein said...

Where do you think it is misguided? If it is misguided in it's main "thesis" or whatever we ought to call it, is there still a lot to gain from that book? As for me, I don't think I will recognize exactly where he is misguided.

Doesn't Swinburne have a different view on epistemology than Plantinga and his contemporaries on reformed epistemology? (Anyway, maybe I should start on that book you recommended (By Richard Feldman) in our e-mail exchange).

One more thing. Have you read Haldane's debate with JJC Smart called Atheism & Theism? Could be interesting to know what you thought of it.


At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 2:46:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

It's too much to go into in detail, but I think he misconstrues the nature of epistemic norms and their relation to our doxastic practices. One of the chief mistakes, I think, is to think that any wholly contingent relation between our experiences and the truth gives us justification for beliefs. That's a big issue--huge issue--in epistemology.

Swinburne's view is diametrically opposed to Plantinga and he considers Plantinga's views in the book. Though still Feldman's Intro book is the best with Steup's and Fumerton's following closely thereupon (there's also an old one by Dancy that's real good).

re: Smart vs. Haldane: I would approach things differently that John (who is *such* a gentleman I can't think of him without fondness), but I think he raises considerations which Smart cannot answer. Alas, not time to say more.

At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 3:25:00 PM, Anonymous Øystein said...

Thanks Trent. Also, when you get the time, I would be very interested in your further thoughts about that book.

Haldane sounds to me indeed like a gentleman. I am now sitting and listening to a radio interview with him here:

That combined with his acsent...


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