How Should I Be A Sceptic -- religious belief and reasoning

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.

This entry concludes a fourth chapter, begun here. I highly recommend reading at least as far back as this, first.]

But some people (believer and sceptic alike) will still have problems with the concept that anything definite may be discovered about the Ultimate Reality. To the sceptics, especially the atheists who are philosophical naturalists, I reply that we discover apparent truths about Nature and its operations and character all the time, and use (sometimes incorrectly, but sometimes correctly, too) such information all the time. This is despite the fact that if non-sentient Nature is the foundation of all reality, then it must be as impossible for derivative human reasoning to fully understand it, as for us to fully understand a sentient ultimate Fact.

For that matter, it seems clear from the science of quantum mechanics that whatever Nature is--whether it is the Final Fact or a derivative entity itself--humans are not capable of completely comprehending it. Quantum indeterminacy assures us of this. But we did discover quantum indeterminacy; and it hasn't stopped us from learning plenty of useful and (as far as we can tell) true positive characteristics of Nature.

For instance, Newton's physical laws may have been transcended by quantum physics, but they have not been abrogated; we can still calculate with virtual certainty what will happen when physical bodies with characteristic set 'A' interact in fashion 'B'. So atheistic naturalists, at least, should (in principle) already understand and accept that we are not barred from discovering particular characteristics of the Final Fact merely by it being the Final Fact.

Religious believers, meanwhile, may or may not have a slightly different position on the matter. Pantheists technically advocate only one level of reality, which they believe to be sentient. Their practical position on this topic (aside from the question of sentience) is the same as the atheistic naturalists: they do have particular beliefs about the system of reality (even saying "God is not thus" declares implicitly that God has one characteristic and not another), and the status of ultimate reality hasn't stopped them from believing they have learned these things. [See first comment below for a footnote here.]

Supernaturalists, however, have an extra potential problem: the specifically 'supernatural' characteristics of 'Supernature' would seem to be inexpressible in terms of 'Nature'. Similarly, a 2-Dimensional man would have no capability of really discovering true 3-D properties via reasoning, much less perception. [See second comment below for a footnote here.]

Now we are touching on an issue that has great relevance to the start of my second section; because this illustration works by presuming the 2-D man has in fact no 3-D properties. But, if he has even one 3-D property (and if it is the correct type of property), then the door is open for him to deduce as much as he can about the properties of 3-D reality. Perhaps he cannot deduce very much, or very much that is useful; but that must wait until the attempt is made. No immediate bar is placed in his path meanwhile--except the question of whether or not he has some (discoverable) 3-D property. Thus, at worst my attempt at an accurate and useful deductive argument is put into a reserved limbo until (or unless) I can establish we have some type of supernatural characteristic.

On the other hand, we also now touch the topic of God's intentions (if any) in the matter. An atheist could easily be willing to agree, in principle, that if I could discover a thread leading out of the 'black-box' of Nature, I would not necessarily be prevented from deducing something useful and true about the Supernature the thread is attached to. This would be a fair acquiescence on her part to me, whether or not I could convince her I have found a thread--for the principle would work just as well for either of us! If she discovered (or exclusively deduced) that what the 'thread' leads to is also non -sentient, then she would remain an atheist--though she would now be a supernaturalistic atheist. She would have discovered that this newly detected or inferred ultimate level is no more sentient than the evident Nature. In any event, a non-sentient Supernature would not be capable of acting to bar our inquiry about its existence and characteristics.

But, a supernaturalistic God, being sentient and ultimately superordinate to me, could be capable of acting to prevent me (or anyone) from discovering something, or even perhaps anything, about Him.

This is certainly a possibility; but, then again, God might also decide to make it possible for me to find my way there. Almost all supernaturalistic theists claim God has in fact done this, through various means. Most of the 'faith-only' theists would claim God has done so through a Scripture (I agree); most of the 'faith-only' theists would claim God has done so through certain scriptures, and absolutely not others (I partially agree for reasons I hope to make clear very much later); many of the 'faith-only' theists would claim God has done so only through Scripture.

But even if God has done so 'only through Scripture', any knowledge we have about this still would be an instance of rational perception and judgment on our part.

In the case of the Hebrew Bible and Christian 'New' Testament, however, I want to point out once more that those scriptures themselves tell us God has used (and does use) other ways than 'pure reliance on Scripture' to get knowledge of His existence and character to us. Here are some examples:

a.) God speaks to prophets who tell other people what He said [see third comment below for a footnote here]; but the audiences for whom the message is also intended (not just the prophet) are expected to judge the prophets by using their reasoning. Does the message fit with other messages previously judged to have come from God? Does the messenger exhibit supernatural power to 'attest' (as the Greek puts it) that at least at face value the purported 'prophet' might be expected to be speaking for God? Does the prophet, in hindsight, have a 100% success rate for anything he or she predicts?

This means someone could legitimately decide an ostensible prophet was not a prophet, in which case the legitimate thing to do was reject (or even kill) the false prophet. That judgment comes from, and through, the responsible reasoning of other people, though. Which in turn, as annoying as this may be to contemplate, means a sceptic might be responsibly reasoning, too, to reject an ostensible prophet. For example, I'm not really sure I could blame a sceptic for noticing that Micah predicts that the Messiah will throw back an Assyrian invasion with the help of a special group of judge-heroes. Clearly, when the Assyrians eventually invaded, this didn't happen! (In the larger story context, a defense could be made that God provisionally retracted that expectation to be fulfilled later somehow; but if this is put forward as a reason to believe Micah to be a legitimate prophet anyway, then it becomes a fallacy of special pleading, I think.)

b.) God allows 'pagans' (non-Jews, non-Christians, non-Muslims, if you prefer) to perceive His existence and character through their own cultures and devices. The total picture these other people have may not be right, but parts of it are right. Certain rulers in the Hebrew Bible fit this category, stretching back at least as far as the priest-king Melchizedek (who evidently was superior to Abraham, as Abraham could accept his blessing in the name of God). The most famous example may be the astrologers of Matthew's Gospel who, in the story, learned of the forthcoming birth of the Messiah from their 'normal' 'pagan' activities.

c.) The Apostle Paul tells the Christian congregation in Rome that God has given to all people the knowledge of His moral character, so that all people may have at least some level of personal (not just causal) relationship to God--which they deny at their own peril. This ability is also given so that all people may realize, that whatever their creed, they know they do not follow their creed perfectly, and thus stand condemned not by the lack of a foreign knowledge but by the knowledge vouchsafed to them. [See fourth comment below for a footnote here.] This, by the way, does not mean better knowledge is not possible for them to learn, and certainly does not mean the better knowledge is not better for them: it is not a creed that all ideas of religion are equally true or even equally useful. Paul means that people cannot avoid an important knowledge of God by being ignorant of Christianity, and are thus still accountable for their actions; but this necessarily must mean that God makes provisions for at least some real truths about Him to be reached in ways which are not the 'best' ways. [See fifth comment below for a footnote here.]

My Christian, Jewish and Muslim brothers may perhaps have an advantage at understanding this point (if they will take that advantage), because despite some very serious differences between us, which we cannot all be correct about, we do share some equally serious metaphysical and even historical beliefs. If I believe metaphysical or historical proposition 'A', and two of my competitors affirm it as well, then I must either admit that God has provided the other two people with that true knowledge (whatever my opinion may be about other particulars of their beliefs) or I must pretend this agreement does not exist. We all three agree that all mankind are brothers by God's design, grace and intention; so willful blindness to recognize shared points of reality which we agree to be true, especially when it involves the fracturing of relationships between brothers, looks to me very much like a sin! I, at least, do not intend to answer to God for a willful fostering of discord.

At any rate, the Scriptures I am familiar with tell me that scriptures are important, but God is not limited to them. And if someone presents me with another proposed scripture, then how am I supposed to perceive its superiority and/or authority without comparing and contrasting in some fashion--even if, at the very least, this means comparing and contrasting its message with what my feelings (or 'inner attenuations to God' or whatever) are telling me? This comparing and contrasting, even with what might be called the internal witness of the Spirit, is still reasoning!

At the most fundamental (and fundamentalistic!) level, then, of Christian witness (and other theistic witnesses, too), I still cannot jump off that shadow. Reasoning is there; to deny it, is to cut myself off from any potential of God's witness, even to myself as a person.

If a rock cannot think, then God cannot have a personal relationship with a rock; it would be a contradiction in terms. (He would still have many different kinds of causal relationships with the rock, of course; and He could still have those relationships as a Person Himself. This is why I emphasized the word 'with'.) Throwing away or ignoring my reason, when it comes to God, leaves me in no better shape than the rock! God might as well not have raised us from the dust! Indeed, my own tradition relates, from the very beginning, how a flat-out refusal to think cogently can dramatically ruin an established relationship with God.

Satan tempted Eve, in the story of Genesis 3, not with the lure of 'knowledge' per se (the fruit gave 'knowledge of good and evil' which does not cover the total field of 'knowledge'), but with lures which could only have been far more obviously false to her (even if you want to treat this as purely a fictional story) than they could be to any of us: "You can be like God despite His intentions, and He feels threatened by your potential to do this, so He has misled you!"

I think I can argue conclusively that this lure must be incorrect, using fine-spun metaphysics. Eve, in the story, had a personal relationship to God that would have made any metaphysical arguments on my part merely funny to her, if she could hear them. We don't have that kind of relationship anymore, according to that story, because she nevertheless pretended she did not know perfectly well what would happen! (Essentially God had said, "If you cut yourself off from Me by setting yourself in opposition to Me, you will die.") And let me point out that according to the story, Adam didn't even need a discussion: he simply ate!

Both cases are examples of what can happen when people willingly ignore the fact that we can (and should) think cogently: it does not mean we become personally closer to God. It means we are hampering our ability to trust God.

I am a Christian, and I fully believe that by the grace of God--through and as Christ--we don't have to get everything right. But I remember no promise from Him that we don't have to try our best to get everything right with every tool we can find at our disposal. I remember several promises from Him of what would happen to us if we shut our eyes and ears and presume that we nevertheless 'know God'.

So. Reason and belief (even as an aspect of 'religious faith') seem to me to be inextricably linked. Reason and trust (even as an aspect of 'religious faith') seem to me to be in the same boat. [See sixth comment below for a footnote here.] In fact, it seems to me that if reason does not outright produce faith, it is at least a necessary ingredient without which no faith (in any meaningful sense of the word) can exist.

I find fideistic philosophy to be self-contradictory to its adherents' propositions, and therefore I do not accept it; although I cannot prevent an extreme fideist from essentially climbing into a void and pulling the hole in after her.

If God exists, I agree that we can never know and understand everything about Him. But then again it has become obvious that no matter our natural knowledge we will never utterly comprehend Nature, either; yet we still discover plenty of useful and true facts about Nature as far as we have gone.

It is one thing to claim that the sea is infinite; it is another to claim that because it is infinite I cannot drink from it and slake my thirst. It is one thing to claim that a mountain is infinite; it is another to claim that because it is infinite it is not crushing me within a particular strata of rock. Nature shows us that there might be (for all we can tell before we start) an infinite number of facts to be discovered, but not an ultimate impenetrability to discovery. I agree that God, as (by definition) a proposed sentient entity Who can have intentions, might intend that I never discover anything about Him; but then again, He might intend that I can, too. There is no way to tell without making the attempt; and it seems that there would always be at least one thing to discover about God ('if He exists He is otherwise undiscoverable')--which even itself would clearly breach any claim of the complete uselessness of a search for knowledge about Him.

People (even some on my own side) may tell me there is absolutely no way to find Him except through a given set of records. I reply that my own records (shared by very many believers) at least give hints that God did not leave the entire job up to the records (the story certainly tells us He didn't begin even special revelation with the records!); and that any real acceptance of a purely-Scriptural revelatory intent by God on my part would require at least some inferences from me which touch concepts and realities that are not themselves Scripture--and this tells me that at the very least God (if I accept those stories) intended Scripture to be used by us in conjunction with something else (which is also what Scripture seems to tell me); and thus the door is opened to the possibility that someone could come to God without using Scripture. At least it would be impossible to tell otherwise without making the attempt. Claiming otherwise from Scripture itself, requires even in theory that I somehow have some standard to judge Scripture's veracity that is not Scripture; and in practice this always requires that I accept inferences barely connected with Scripture's authority at all. [Footnote: for instance, my parents and teacher and preacher vouch for its authority.]

Taken altogether, this tells me (so far as I have gone) that the attempt can at least be... well... attempted! It is not intrinsically doomed beforehand to utter failure--so, let us see what I can discover.

I also grant that God could simply 'create' a psychological state in my mind that might function like a 'belief'. But it seems to me that such a situation would be incorrigibly alien to all the other instances of 'belief' He allows me to form, to the extent that calling it a 'belief' seems facetious. Furthermore, such a forced 'belief' (if we insist on calling it by that label) violates any foundation of free love that we can return to God. Granted, some of my readers won't care about that concept. But my theistic--including Christian--brothers should care. [Footnote: an active discovery up to even 100% certainty, should that be possible, would be at the least a responsible process by me, leading to my recognition of God as a Person, and would not suddenly abrogate my free choice to love Him or not. "The devils also believe!--and shudder."]

And even if some of my readers insist upon God's ability to create such a 'forced belief' as a hypothetical possibility, it seems to me to be a completely mooted point: it is patently obvious, from the umpty-three variations of religion and anti-religion in our world, that if God exists He does not choose to work that way. I don't consider hypothetical possibilities, obviously refuted by experience, to be bars to inquiry--especially ones I consider to be contradictory pseudo-problems.

This brings up one last issue on the question of whether there is something we can somehow know, before any kind of attempt at discovery is made, about the 'sheer impossibility' of reaching true and useful answers from a reasonable inquiry into God's existence and character. You, my reader, may have noticed that a not-inconsiderable bit of my rejection of this position, hinges on the proposition that even God cannot do what is intrinsically contradictory. Obviously, if I am wrong about this and God can do absolutely contradictory things ( forcibly inciting a real 'belief' in me which is nevertheless free enough from automatic response on my part that I can truly call it 'my' 'belief' and not, say, God's belief exhibited through me; and that this can somehow nevertheless count as responsible 'knowledge' on my part that God exists and has certain characteristics; and that consequently I need no reasoning at all for purposes of coming to belief...), then my argument that I can at least try to discover something about God by abstract reasoning loses some steam.

This leads me into the question of what it means for God to be omnipotent, which also has some misunderstandings that may need to be cleared up before we continue. And it leads into the whole issue of contradictions in general, which has much more than a minor importance to my forthcoming argument.

Therefore, I think this topic will be a good bridge between these previous few chapters and the next set of 'field-leveling' chapters, as well as to my later sections of positive argumentation.

[Next week: contra contradictions]


Jason Pratt said…
.......[first deferred footnote here]

To say 'God does not exist, only non-sentient Nature', means that Nature is the ultimate level of reality, and has a characteristic (non-sentience) that excludes another (sentience). Most atheists are also naturalists, insofar as they claim one and only one level of reality exists: the space-time of physical Nature. A pantheist, on the other hand, will be some kind of theistic naturalist.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[second deferred footnote here]

He could only approach them by analogies; but without some apprehension of the 3-D reality to compare the analogies to, then the analogies cannot be representative in any fashion of 3-D reality. Circles and rectangles can only suggest the 3-D properties of a can of Mountain Dew, if the thinker has some apprehension, expressible or otherwise, of what 3-D-ness is for a can of Mountain Dew. The circles and rectangles could of course suggest common properties shared by the can and 2-D reality, and accurately so as far as they go--but the special relation of those properties might be utterly inapprehensible to a purely 2-D man insofar as the relation is a 3-D relation.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[third deferred footnote here]

The reports of their prophecies in Scripture obviously cannot come before their prophecy; in most (all?) cases, the prophecies were spoken first, and written down later. Any number of prophecies could never have been written down at all. The point here is that, in those stories, God was not purely relying on a Scripture for revelation. Revelation comes first, scripture comes afterward, whether immediately or at some interval which could be years or decades.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[fourth deferred footnote here]

Paul also tells his congregations that these people who have the Law of God written in their hearts, will not only be condemned but also defended by this inner testimony before the judgment seat of Christ. (Romans 2:14-16)
Jason Pratt said…
.......[fifth deferred footnote here]

I mean 'best' in terms of 'fullest and widest data'. I think God will always do everything He can to get true knowledge of Himself across to individuals, but the possible scope of success will be partly dependent on individual situations. I will have much more to say about this later.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[sixth deferred footnote here]

I will have more to say about this when I get around to demonstrating there is Someone to trust; I think a sceptic can fairly accept that this relationship would potentially obtain if there was Someone, and I think most of my theist brethren who already accept that Someone exists should at least partly understand now why I say this.

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