Crisis of Faith

In the last post, I linked to Fr. Joseph Bolin’s post on the commitment of faith. He says there:

Since faith by definition is about things that we do not see to be true, there is no inherent contradiction in faith as such being contradicted by things we do see to be true, such an absolute assent of faith seems to imply an assent to the content of faith so strong that one would desire to hold to it as true, “even if it (the content of faith) were to be false”. Can such faith be justified?

Consider the following situation: a woman has grounds to suspect her husband is cheating on her; there is a lot of evidence that he is; even when she asks him and he tells her that he is not, she must admit that the sum of evidence including his testimony is against him, and he probably is cheating. Still, she decides to believe him. I argue that the very act of believing him entails a commitment to him such that once she has given faith to his word, while it is still in fact possible that she is believing him though he is actually lying, this possibility is less relevant for her than it was prior to her giving faith. In this sense, after faith, the “if it were to be false” becomes less of a consideration for the believer, and to this degree she wills faith “even were it to be false”.

A more detailed analysis of the situation: various persons present her with claims or evidence that her husband is cheating on her. Before confronting him or asking him if he is, she collects various evidence for and against it. She decides that since believing him if he is dishonest is not without its own evils, if the evidence that he is cheating (after taking into account the evidence constituted by his statement on the matter) constitutes a near certainty that he is cheating — let’s say, over 95% probability that he is cheating — that she shouldn’t believe him if he says he is not, but must either suspend judgment or maintain that he is cheating. Now, suppose the man says that he is not cheating, and the evidence is not quite that much against him, let’s say, the evidence indicates a 90% probability that he is cheating, and a 10% probability that he is not. She makes the decision to believe him. Since she would not decide to do so unless she believed that it were good to so, she is giving an implicit negative value to “believing him, if he is in fact lying”, a much greater positive value to “believing him, if he is speaking the truth”, and consequently an implicit positive value to “believing him,” (even though he is probably lying).

Going forward, she is presented with an easy opportunity to gather further evidence about whether he is in fact cheating. She must make a decision whether to do so. If she is always going to make the same decision at this point that she would have made if she had not yet decided to believe him, it seems that her “faith” she gives him and his word is rather empty. A given decision to pursue further evidence, while not incompatible with faith, is a blow against it — to the extent that, out of fidelity to him, she accepts his claim as sure, she must operate either on the assumption that further evidence will vindicate him, or that he is innocent despite the evidence. But to the extent she operates on one of these assumptions, there is no need to pursue further evidence. Pursuing evidence, therefore, implies abstracting from her faith in him. To pursue evidence because it is possible that further evidence will be even more against him and provide her with enough grounds to withdraw her assent to his claim of innocence means giving that faith a lesser role in her life and relationship with him, and is thereby a weakening of the exercise of that faith. Consequently, if that faith is a good thing, then, having given such faith, she must be more reluctant to seek a greater intellectual resolution of the case by greater evidence than she was before she had given it.

All of this is true in substance, although one could argue with various details. For example, Fr. Joseph seems to be presuming for the sake of discussion that a person’s subjective assessment is at all times in conformity with the evidence, so that if more evidence is found, one must change one’s subjective assessment to that degree. But this is clearly not the case in general in regard to religious opinions. As we noted in the previous post, that assessment does not follow a random walk, and this proves that it is not simply a rational assessment of the evidence. And it is the random walk, rather than anything that happens with actual religious people, that would represent the real situation of someone with an “empty” faith, that is, of someone without any commitment of faith.

Teenagers will sometimes say to themselves, “My parents told me all these things about God and religion, but actually there are other families and other children who believe totally different things. I don’t have any real reason to think my family is right rather than some other. So God probably doesn’t exist.”

They might very well follow this up with, “You know, I said God doesn’t exist, but that was just because I was trying to reject my unreasonable opinions. I don’t actually know whether God exists or not.”

This is an example of the random walk, and represents a more or less rational assessment of the evidence available to teenagers. But what it most certainly does not represent, is commitment of any kind. And to the degree that we think that such a commitment is good, it is reasonable to disapprove of such behavior, and this is why there does seem something wrong there, even if in fact the teenager’s religious opinions were not true in the first place.

Fr. Joseph’s original question was this: “Can (religious) faith entail an absolute commitment to the one in whom we place faith and his word, such that one should hold that “no circumstances could arise in which I would cease to believe?” He correctly notes that this “seems to imply an assent to the content of faith so strong that one would desire to hold to it as true, ‘even if it (the content of faith) were to be false'”. For this reason, his post never actually answers the question. For although he right to say that the commitment of faith implies giving preferential treatment to the claim that the content of one’s faith is true, it will not follow that this preferential treatment should be absolute, unless it is true that it is better to believe even if that content is false. And it would be extremely difficult to prove that, even if it were the case.

My own view is that one should be extremely hesitant to accept such an assessment, even of some particular claim, such as the one in the post linked above, that “God will always bring good out of evil.” And if one should be hesitant to make such an assertion about a particular claim, much more should one doubt that this claim is true in regard to the entire contents of a religious faith, which involves making many assertions. Some of the reasons for what I am saying here are much like some of the reasons for preserving the mean of virtue. What exactly will happen if I eat too much? I’m not sure, but I know it’s likely to be something bad. I might feel sick afterwards, but I also might not. Or I might keep eating too much, become very overweight, and have a heart attack at some point. Or I might, in the very process of eating too much, say at a restaurant, spend money that I needed for something else. Vicious behaviors are extreme insofar as they lack the mean of virtue, and insofar as they are extreme, they are likely to have extreme consequences of one kind or another. So we can know in advance that our vicious behaviors are likely to have bad consequences, without necessarily being able to point out the exact consequences in advance.

Something very similar applies to telling lies, and in fact telling lies is a case of vicious behavior, at least in general. It often seems like a lie is harmless, but then it turns out later that the lie caused substantial harm.

And if this is true about telling lies, it is also true about making false statements, even when those false statements are not lies. So we can easily assert that the woman in Eric Reitan’s story is better off believing that God will somehow redeem the evil of the death of her children, simply looking at the particular situation. But if this turned out to be false, we have no way to know what harms might follow from her holding a false belief, and there would be a greater possibility of harm to the degree that she made that conviction more permanent. It would be easy enough to create stories to illustrate this, but I will not do that here. Just as eating too much, or talking too much, or moving about too much, can create any number of harms by multiple circuitous routes, so can believing in things that are false. One particularly manifest way this can happen is insofar as one false belief can lead to another, and although the original belief might seem harmless, the second belief might be very harmful indeed.

In general, Fr. Joseph seems to be asserting that the commitment of faith should lead a person not to pursue additional evidence relative to the truth of their faith, and apparently especially in situations where one already knows that there is a significant chance that the evidence will continue to be against it. This is true to some extent, but the right action in a concrete case will differ according to circumstances, especially, as argued here, if it is not better to believe in the situation where the content of the faith is false. Additionally, it will frequently not be a question of deciding to pursue evidence or not, but of deciding whether to think clearly about evidence or arguments that have entered one’s life even without any decision at all.

Consider the case of St. Therese, discussed in the previous post. Someone might argue thus: “Surely St. Therese’s commitment was absolute. You cannot conceive of circumstances in which she would have abandoned her faith. So if St. Therese was virtuous, it must be virtuous to have such an absolute commitment.” And it would follow that it is better to believe even if your faith is false, and that one should imitate her in having such an absolute commitment. Likewise, it would follow with probability, although not conclusively, that Shulem Deen should also have had such an absolute commitment to his Jewish faith, and should have kept believing in it no matter what happened. Of course, an additional consequence, unwelcome to many, would be that he should also have had an absolute refusal to convert to Christianity that could not be changed under any circumstances.

It is quite certain that St. Therese was virtuous. However, if you cannot conceive of any circumstances in which she would have abandoned her faith, that is more likely to be a lack in your imagination than in the possibility. Theoretically there could have been many circumstances in which it would have been quite possible. It is true that in the concrete circumstances in which she was living, such an abandonment would have been extremely unlikely, and likely not virtuous if it happened. But those are concrete circumstances, not abstractly conceivable circumstances. As noted in the previous post, the evidence that she had against her faith was very vague and general, and it is not clear that it could ever have become anything other than that without a substantially different life situation. And since it is true that the commitment of faith is a good reason to give preferential treatment to the truth of your faith, such vague and general evidence could not have been a good reason for her to abandon her faith. This is the real motivation for the above argument. It is clear enough that in her life as it was actually lived, there was not and could not be a good reason for her to leave her faith. But this is a question of the details of her life.

Shulem Deen, of course, lived in very different circumstances, and his religious faith itself differed greatly from that of St. Therese. Since I have already recommended his book, I will not attempt to tell his story for him, but it can be seen from the above reasoning that the answer to the question raised at the end of the last post might very well be, “They both did the right thing.”

Earlier I quoted Gregory Dawes as saying this:

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the “ministerial” and the “magisterial” use of reason. (It’s a traditional view — he’s merely citing Martin Luther — and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian’s faith. The basis of the Christian’s faith is (what she takes to be) the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins.

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology.

There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead.

There is more than one way to read this. When he says, “this means following them wherever they lead,” one could take that to imply a purely rational assessment of evidence, and no hesitancy whatsoever to consider any possible line of argument. This would be a substantial disagreement with Fr. Joseph’s position, and would in fact be mistaken. Fr. Joseph is quite right that the commitment of faith has implications for one’s behavior, and that it implies giving a preferential treatment to the claims of one’s faith. But this is probably not the best way to read Dawes, who seems to be objecting more to the absoluteness of the claim: “The commitment of faith is irrevocable,” and arguments “that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost.” And Dawes is quite right that such absolute claims go too far. Virtue is a mean and depends on circumstances, and there is enough space in the world for both Shulem Deen and St. Therese.

The reader might be wondering about the title to this post. Besides being a play on words, perhaps spoiled by mentioning it, it is a reference to the fact that Fr. Joseph is basically painting a very clear picture of the situation where a Catholic has a crisis of faith and overcomes it. This is only slightly distorted by the idealization of assuming that the person evaluates the evidence available to him in a perfectly rational way. But he points out, just as I did in the previous post, that such a crisis is mainly overcome by choosing not to consider any more evidence, or not to think about it anymore, and similar things. He describes this as choosing “not to pursue evidence” because of the idealization, but in real life this can also mean ceasing to pay attention to evidence that one already has, choosing to pay more attention to other motives that one has to believe that are independent of evidence, and the like.


Circular Virtue

In the last post, we raised this concern: if virtue means action that leads to happiness, and happiness consists in a virtuous life, then our definition of virtue is circular.

But happiness is first defined more generally as the perfection of human life, and it is by means of this general definition that Aristotle arrives at the particular account involving virtue. And we have an understanding of good and bad which comes before an understanding of virtue or moral obligation. It is not the same to say that something is good and that it is morally required, or that something is bad and that one is morally obliged to avoid it. Thus eating ice cream is good but not a moral obligation, and having a headache is bad, but one suffering from a headache is not under the moral obligation of taking aspirin.

This implies that we can know that some things are opposed to happiness even before considering virtue. And it is through these things that we begin to learn what is virtuous. Thus drinking wine to the point of sickness and severe hangovers is evidently opposed to happiness, and from this we can learn that moderation in drinking is virtuous.

One might conclude that temperance is merely a means to good outcomes, but this is not the case. It is in part a means to good outcomes, as in the above illustration. But since doing and making are not the same, the good of “not having a hangover” is distinct from the action of “drinking moderately,” and both the result and the action are good things. So we learn the goodness of the action from the results, but the goodness of the action is distinct from the goodness of the results. Aristotle points out that one who becomes virtuous learns to appreciate the goodness of virtue in itself, even apart from its consequences:

Their life is also in itself pleasant. For pleasure is a state of soul, and to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant; e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the lover of horses, and a spectacle to the lover of sights, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue. Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself. For, besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant.

And since the good of virtue is something additional to the good of the results, happiness, or a perfect human life, requires both goods. In this way neither the definition of happiness nor the definition of virtue is circular.


Ordering Sensible Pains and Pleasures

Discussing the avoidance of pains and the seeking of pleasures, St. Thomas says:

I answer that, The desire for pleasure is of itself more eager than the shunning of sorrow. The reason of this is that the cause of pleasure is a suitable good; while the cause of pain or sorrow is an unsuitable evil. Now it happens that a certain good is suitable without any repugnance at all: but it is not possible for any evil to be so unsuitable as not to be suitable in some way. Wherefore pleasure can be entire and perfect: whereas sorrow is always partial. Therefore desire for pleasure is naturally greater than the shunning of sorrow. Another reason is because the good, which is the object of pleasure, is sought for its own sake: whereas the evil, which is the object of sorrow, is to be shunned as being a privation of good: and that which is by reason of itself is stronger than that which is by reason of something else. Moreover we find a confirmation of this in natural movements. For every natural movement is more intense in the end, when a thing approaches the term that is suitable to its nature, than at the beginning, when it leaves the term that is unsuitable to its nature: as though nature were more eager in tending to what is suitable to it, than in shunning what is unsuitable. Therefore the inclination of the appetitive power is, of itself, more eager in tending to pleasure than in shunning sorrow.

But it happens accidentally that a man shuns sorrow more eagerly than he seeks pleasure: and this for three reasons. First, on the part of the apprehension. Because, as Augustine says (De Trin. x, 12), “love is felt more keenly, when we lack that which we love.” Now from the lack of what we love, sorrow results, which is caused either by the loss of some loved good, or by the presence of some contrary evil. But pleasure suffers no lack of the good loved, for it rests in possession of it. Since then love is the cause of pleasure and sorrow, the latter is more the shunned, according as love is the more keenly felt on account of that which is contrary to it. Secondly, on the part of the cause of sorrow or pain, which cause is repugnant to a good that is more loved than the good in which we take pleasure. For we love the natural well-being of the body more than the pleasure of eating: and consequently we would leave the pleasure of eating and the like, from fear of the pain occasioned by blows or other such causes, which are contrary to the well-being of the body. Thirdly, on the part of the effect: namely, in so far as sorrow hinders not only one pleasure, but all.

He adds in response to a saying of St. Augustine,

The saying of Augustine that “sorrow is shunned more than pleasure is sought” is true accidentally but not simply. And this is clear from what he says after: “Since we see that the most savage animals are deterred from the greatest pleasures by fear of pain,” which pain is contrary to life which is loved above all.

In other words, people avoid physical pain because it is related to damage to the body and ultimately to death, and great physical pain to great damage and thus possibly immediate death. In this sense, people will avoid such pain first, in preference to seeking any physical pleasure.

Once one has avoided such immediate damage to the body, human nature is preserved in basically two ways, in the individual by way of food and drink, and in the species by reproduction. Thus St. Thomas says that the virtue of temperance is related to the pleasures related to these modes of preservation:

I answer that, As stated above, temperance is about desires and pleasures in the same way as fortitude is about fear and daring. Now fortitude is about fear and daring with respect to the greatest evils whereby nature itself is dissolved; and such are dangers of death. Wherefore in like manner temperance must needs be about desires for the greatest pleasures. And since pleasure results from a natural operation, it is so much the greater according as it results from a more natural operation. Now to animals the most natural operations are those which preserve the nature of the individual by means of meat and drink, and the nature of the species by the union of the sexes. Hence temperance is properly about pleasures of meat and drink and sexual pleasures. Now these pleasures result from the sense of touch. Wherefore it follows that temperance is about pleasures of touch.

Thus we could divide physical pleasures into three kinds: general physical pleasures, such as the feeling of sitting in a comfortable chair, which are not directly related to the preservation of human nature, but are at least opposed to physical pains; pleasures of eating and drinking, which are related to the preservation of the individual; and sexual pleasures, which are related to the preservation of the species.

Just as people will accept the deprivation of physical pleasures in order to avoid pain, so people would accept the deprivation of sexual pleasures in order to avoid starvation.

We could look at this in terms of the more necessary and the better. Avoiding damage to the body is more necessary than nourishment, but nourishment is better; and avoiding the deprivation of nourishment is more necessary than reproduction, but reproduction is better. Consequently the pleasures of food and drink tend to be physically more intense than general physical pleasures, and sexual pleasures more intense than those of food and drink.