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.


Some Personal Remarks

At one point we looked at Trent Horn’s question for a Mormon:

Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?

The main reason that our Mormon protagonist  is unwilling to change his mind about religion is not because of the evidence in favor of Mormonism. There certainly is such evidence, as for example the witnesses who testified that they saw Joseph Smith’s golden plates. But such evidence is surely not the principal motive involved. Basically they have motives other than truth for continuing to believe. If a Mormon changes their religious views, this can have serious negative consequences for their social and personal life. This is not specific to Mormonism, but is common to religion in general, as well as to many political views, because of the way that such views are used to express social and political loyalties. As noted in the linked post, someone who changes his view is seen as a traitor to his community.

Gregory Dawes, a former Catholic, seems to have had this experience. He remarks (quoted in the post linked above):

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.

The Catholic Church does not teach that falling away from the faith is the greatest of sins. In fact, although it certainly teaches that it is objectively wrong for a Catholic to do so, it does not even teach that a Catholic is always subjectively guilty at all when they change their religious views. Dawes was a well educated Catholic, so he is probably aware of these facts. Why then does he call this “the greatest of sins?” It seems pretty reasonable to suppose that he is responding in a personal way to how he was treated by others after he changed his mind about his religion.

As I said in the linked post, I agree with Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes about the use of reason. However, this is not the only thing that Dawes and I have in common. Like Dawes, my family and background are completely Catholic. Like Dawes, my education was completely Catholic. Finally, I substantially agree with Dawes in his conclusions regarding Catholicism and regarding religion in general, considered as a body of factual claims about the world. Of course this is not the case not in every detail. I also suspect that I disagree with him to a larger extent on the reasons for those conclusions. This is not an opinion that I have just arrived at. I have held this view for over a year now. Nor was it the result of a brief process, but the result of a gradual process of thought which took decades of my life.

As with Dawes, and as with our theoretical Mormon, this has had serious consequences for my personal life, and not only on account of the reactions of others. Nonetheless, the reactions of others play a significant role here. Consequently I have a few remarks principally for those who know me in real life:

  1. This blog is and remains theoretically anonymous. Please do not make this post a public announcement connected to my real name.
  2. I appreciate your prayers. Needless to say, this does not imply that there is any meaningful weakness to the case for my position.
  3. I do not appreciate insults. Your faith does not require you to believe that I am foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons. If you think that it does, or if it pleases you to think these things in any case, please keep them to yourself.
  4. While it should be obvious from this blog that I do not mind conversations about religion, considered in general, I do not appreciate proselytism, namely efforts that could reasonably be described as “stop him from being foolish and get him to come to his senses.” I am not being foolish, and I am entirely in possession of my senses. Please do not engage in this behavior; it is uncharitable, it will not have the effects that you wish, and persistence in it over a long period of time can only have the effect of destroying relationships.

One additional remark concerning the “possessed by demons” point. Someone recently said in a personal communication:

By the strange things you write, I can see that your mind has been given blinders / tunnel vision, presumably by some evil spirit, who only lets you look at things from his point of view.

This refers to things written on this blog, and in that sense it is completely incorrect. Everything currently on the blog is completely consistent with a Catholic view, and only expresses views that I have held for many years. Many orthodox Catholics would agree in substance with virtually everything here.

As for the demon comment itself, I have noted in the past that if you say that a person’s beliefs are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation with them. In the same way, if you say that a person’s religious views are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation about religion with them.

Not Very Serious Thinking

Wikipedia explains the method of dendrochronology, or tree ring dating:

Growth rings, also referred to as tree rings or annual rings, can be seen in a horizontal cross section cut through the trunk of a tree. Growth rings are the result of new growth in the vascular cambium, a layer of cells near the bark that is classified as a lateral meristem; this growth in diameter is known as secondary growth. Visible rings result from the change in growth speed through the seasons of the year; thus, critical for the title method, one ring generally marks the passage of one year in the life of the tree.

The rings are more visible in temperate zones, where the seasons differ more markedly. The inner portion of a growth ring is formed early in the growing season, when growth is comparatively rapid (hence the wood is less dense) and is known as “early wood” (or “spring wood”, or “late-spring wood”); the outer portion is the “late wood” (and has sometimes been termed “summer wood”, often being produced in the summer, though sometimes in the autumn) and is denser.

Many trees in temperate zones make one growth ring each year, with the newest adjacent to the bark. Hence, for these, for the entire period of a tree’s life, a year-by-year record or ring pattern is formed that reflects the age of the tree and the climatic conditions in which the tree grew. Adequate moisture and a long growing season result in a wide ring, while a drought year may result in a very narrow one.

Direct reading of tree ring chronologies is a learned science, for several reasons. First, contrary to the single ring per year paradigm, alternating poor and favorable conditions, such as mid-summer droughts, can result in several rings forming in a given year. In addition, particular tree species may present “missing rings”, and this influences the selection of trees for study of long time spans. For instance, missing rings are rare in oak and elm trees.
Critical to the science, trees from the same region tend to develop the same patterns of ring widths for a given period of historical study. These patterns can be compared and matched ring for ring with trees growing at the same time, in the same geographical zone (and therefore under similar climatic conditions). When these tree-ring patterns are carried back, from tree to tree in the same locale, in overlapping fashion, chronologies can be built up—both for entire geographical regions and sub-regions. Moreover, wood from ancient structures with known chronologies can be matched to the tree ring data (a technique called cross-dating), and the age of the wood can thereby be determined precisely. Cross-dating was originally done by visual inspection; computers have been harnessed to do the task, applying statistical techniques to assess the matching.

To eliminate individual variations in tree-ring growth, dendrochronologists take the smoothed average of the tree-ring widths of multiple tree samples to build up a ring history, a process termed replication. A tree-ring history whose beginning and end dates are not known is called a floating chronology. It can be anchored by cross-matching a section against another chronology (tree-ring history) whose dates are known. Fully anchored chronologies extending back more than 11,000 years exist for river oak trees from South Germany (from the Main and Rhine rivers) and for pine from Northern Ireland. The consistency of these two independent dendrochronological sequences has been supported through comparison of their radiocarbon and dendrochronological ages. Another fully anchored chronology that extends back 8500 years exists for the bristlecone pine in the Southwest US.

Given the way this method of dating works, something may be dated to an exact year some thousands of years in the past. While such periods are extremely short compared to the periods of time suggested by Hutton’s analysis of geology, they may be a problem for people who believe that the book of Genesis is a literal and historical account, if they also believe that the book is inspired by God. Thus John Woodmorappe says,

A literal understanding of the biblical chronologies places the Flood no earlier than about 2,500 B.C. and the creation no earlier than about 6,000 B.C. (Allowance for unlisted names in the biblical chronologies pushes back these dates, but not much). Yet the Bristlecone Pine (hereafter BCP) long chronology, comprised of hundreds of live and dead trees, is over 8,000 years long. The presence of fossiliferous sediment under the BCPs rules out any of them being pre-Flood. So, unless we choose to push the Flood back many thousands of years, effectively disregarding biblical chronologies, how can the conflicting chronologies be reconciled? I have studied this question for many years.

First he asks whether the tree ring dating contains some kind of obvious error, and concludes that it does not:

The ring-width measurements, expressed in thousandths of a millimeter, are archived online (Graybill 1970s). What if the tree-ring series were matched incorrectly? To test this possibility, I ran the BCP series constituents through COFECHA (Woodmorappe 2003b), which is a tree-ring statistical-matching software program from the University of Arizona Tree Ring lab. The software automatically removes low-frequency variance (long-term changes in tree-ring width caused by such things as tree idiosyncrasies, tree age, breaking-through the forest canopy, etc.) and matches only the high-frequency variance (ring-to-ring changes in width), after removing autocorrelation (the tendency for a given year’s growth to be partly influenced by the weather more than one year back in time). The software measures the statistical strength of every possible matching point in two series, except the first 40 and last 40 years, which may be artifactual owing to the short length of the overlapping segments.

All of the inferred correct matches showed t-values of at least 10 to 20, and this occurring not only two tree-ring series at a time, but reciprocally for at least 10 samples per year. All alternate matches gave much lower t-values, and none reciprocally supporting each other to a sample depth greater than 3. So, unless there is something funny about the data itself, for which there is no evidence, it appears that the crossmatches are sound, and so is the BCP chronology itself.

Then he discusses the possibility of multiple rings being produced in a year, concluding that it is at least very rare for this kind of tree:

The over 8,000 years of BCP chronology presuppose that no more than one ring ever formed per year. Every so often, claims are made about bristlecone pines having multiple rings per year (Matthews 2006). The “wriggles” encountered in the BCP/C-14 progression are consistent with such a premise (Molen 2008), but there is—at present—no evidence for adult BCPs being able to produce multiple rings per growing season. While doing field work in the BCP forest (Woodmorappe 2003a), and earlier, I had the privilege of meeting many BCP specialists, some of whom had been monitoring BCP growth for nearly fifty years. They were unanimous in encountering not one BCP that ever produced more than one ring per year.

Coming to the conclusion that he cannot explain the series in this way, he proceeds to make his own proposal:

It has long been known that individual tree rings can be changed, during growth, from the climate-signal-dictated size to a different size as a result of some disturbance. This disturbance (for example, insect attack, earthquake, release of gas, etc.) can make the ring either smaller or larger. If these disturbances occurred at sufficient frequency, and reappeared in sequence in other trees at later times, the actually-contemporaneous trees would crossmatch in an age-staggered manner, thus creating an artificial chronology.

For illustrative purposes, imagine the simplified situation of only three trees, (A), (B), and (C), which started growing at exactly the same time, and each of which lived exactly 500 years. If nothing happened, the tree-ring series would normally crossmatch according to climatic signal, with the crossmatch point starting with the first ring each of Tree (A), Tree (B), and Tree (C). All the constituents of the 3-tree chronology would overlap completely, creating a chronology that spans exactly 500 years.

Now suppose that an external disturbance causes rings 2, 6, 9, 14, etc., in Tree (A) to grow much bigger or smaller than they otherwise would. At about this time, rings 1, 7, 10, 13, etc. are perturbed in Tree (B). 300 years after the disturbance of the growth of the rings in Tree (A), the sequence of disturbances repeats in Tree (B), affecting rings 302, 306, 309, 314, etc. (The repetition doesn’t have to be exact, because the discrepancy can be covered by inferred missing rings, which are common in the BCP chronology). 400 years after the disturbances in the early rings of Tree (B), similar disturbances occur in Tree (C), affecting rings 401, 407, 410, 413, etc. Identical reasoning can be applied to many more trees, and over a much longer period of time.

The net result is the fact that Trees (A), (B), and (C) will no longer crossmatch across their 500-year common growth history. They will now only crossmatch at their ring-perturbed ends. The result is an illusory chronology that is 1200 years long. Crossmatching experiments that I had performed show that it is only necessary to disturb 2–3 rings per decade, sustained across at least a few decades, in order to override the climatic signal, and to cause the tree-ring series to artificially crossmatch at the ring-perturbed ends.

He concludes,

The 8,000-year-long BCP chronology appears to be correctly crossmatched, and there is no evidence that bristlecone pines can put on more than one ring per year. The best approach for collapsing this chronology, one that takes into account the evidence from C-14 dates, is one that factors the existence of migrating ring-disturbing events. Much more must be learned about this phenomenon before this hypothesis can be developed further.

Note that, as can be seen from his examples, the “disturbances” that generally cause such changes in tree ring growth are not something that one might expect to “reappear in sequence in other trees at later times.” They are basically accidental things that will occur occasionally by chance. He does not even offer a suggestion for a process that might cause such a repeated pattern, and especially one that “takes into account the evidence from C-14 dates.”

As Gregory Dawes put it, “there is something less than serious about the spirit” in which such arguments are offered, there is “something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort.”

More plainly, it is basically obvious that Woodmorappe is wrong. The bristle cone pine chronology corresponds to 8,000 years of real tree growth, just as it appears to do. It is not some strange mystery to explain.

St. Augustine on Science vs. Scripture

St. Augustine famously rebuked those who interpret Scripture while ignoring scientific knowledge of the natural world (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, book 1, chapters 19):

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

In this passage St. Augustine seems to reject the idea of using Scripture to correct natural science. However, St. Augustine is sometimes used in a manner which in many cases implies the opposite. In particular, St. Augustine is also understood by many to have said that we must always understand the text in a literal sense except when it can be proved that this would imply that Scripture says something false. And “proved” here is often taken in a very strong sense. For example, Gregory Dawes speaks of this understanding of St. Augustine:

There exist two Augustinian principles that relate to apparent conflicts between the Bible and secular knowledge, one indicating when secular knowledge claims should take priority and the other when a literal reading of the biblical text should prevail. Following Ernan McMullin, I shall call the first of these the principle of the priority of demonstration.

“When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative reading of Scripture must be sought.”

When in other words, enquiry based on natural principles leads to a conclusion that appears to contradict scripture but cannot be doubted, then scripture must be reinterpreted.

By way of contrast, a second principle, the principle of the priority of scripture, states that when rational enquiry leads to something less than certainty, the authority of the literal sense of scripture is to be preferred.

“When there is an apparent conflict between a Scripture passage and an assertion about the natural world grounded on sense or reason, the literal reading of the Scripture passage should prevail as long as the latter assertion lacks demonstration.”

These principles are at least implicit in Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, his commentary on the literal sense of Genesis, and are accepted by medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas. They were employed by the church authorities during the trial of Galileo, restated by Pope Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century, and invoked by Pope Pius XII in 1950 when condemning polygenism (the view that the human race had more than one origin).

Apart from the claim that these principles are implicit in De Genesi ad litteram, there is no citation of St. Augustine here, neither in this text nor in Dawes’s footnotes. In the footnotes, he cites St. Thomas’s Summa 1a, 68, 1, Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, and Pius XII in Humani Generis.

Let’s look at these texts. St. Thomas says,

In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.

St. Thomas certainly does not say here that we should adhere to our particular explanations until they are proved with certainty to be false. He simply says that we should abandon them if that happens. This does not mean that if someone shows that there is a 95% chance that our explanation is false, we should ignore his argument because it does not conclude with certainty.

Here is the text of St. Augustine cited by St. Thomas:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

St. Augustine does not say that we should hold to our interpretations until they are proven with certainty to be false. Rather he says that “we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.” This simply says that one should hold to it reasonably, and not unreasonably. But it is not reasonable to ignore reasonable arguments simply because they do not conclude with certainty. Thus, if anything, this text rejects the supposedly Augustinian principle presented by Dawes.

Dawes cites two texts from Providentissimus Deus. The first is paragraph 15:

But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden, when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires; a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense, more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of many. For this method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles, and has been approved by her own practice, as the holy Liturgy attests; although it is true that the holy Fathers did not thereby pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas of faith, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety, such as, by their own experience, they knew to be most valuable. The authority of other Catholic interpreters is not so great; but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance in the Church, and, therefore, these commentaries also have their own honourable place, and are serviceable in many ways for the refutation of assailants and the explanation of difficulties. But it is most unbecoming to pass by, in ignorance or contempt, the excellent work which Catholics have left in abundance, and to have recourse to the works of non-Catholics – and to seek in them, to the detriment of sound doctrine and often to the peril of faith, the explanation of passages on which Catholics long ago have successfully employed their talent and their labour. For although the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student, he should, nevertheless, bear well in mind-as the Fathers also teach in numerous passages – that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church, and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without the true faith, only gnaw the bark of the Sacred Scripture, and never attain its pith.

Then comes paragraph 18:

In the second place, we have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning their literary studies; for the young, if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, are easily led to give up believing in it altogether. It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality. Hence to the Professor of Sacred Scripture a knowledge of natural science will be of very great assistance in detecting such attacks on the Sacred Books, and in refuting them. There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.” If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.” To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost “Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.” Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us – `went by what sensibly appeared,” or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to.

Leo XIII is not holding the principle indicated by Dawes in the first paragraph unless “reason makes it untenable” is understood to mean that reason has disproved something conclusively. But insofar as it can be unreasonable to hold something which has not yet been disproved conclusively, there is no need to understand Pope Leo in such an unreasonable way. In the second paragraph, since Leo XIII understands the truth of Scripture to be a settled principle, he simply quotes St. Augustine as saying that if something is conclusively proved to be true of the world, then we cannot interpret Scripture to contradict that; and if something is conclusively proved to be the meaning of Scripture, then we cannot understand the world to contradict that. This does not mean that you must hold to a literal meaning of Scripture when there are good arguments that the thing stated would be false, just because those arguments are not conclusive.

It is clear enough that neither Leo XIII nor St. Augustine claim such a principle in the second paragraph, and there is at least no need to understand Leo XIII to be claiming the principle in the first paragraph. The same thing is true of St. Augustine, since Leo takes these words directly from a text in De Genesi ad litteram, where he says that we should not interpret the rivers mentioned in Genesis to be only figurative, if no “necessitas cogeret,” and “ratio nulla prohibeat,” that is, if no necessity requires us to take them figuratively only, and no argument prevents us from understanding them literally. Of course, as with Leo, there is no need for us to understand St. Augustine to be denying that we could be prevented from understanding them literally by a probable argument.

Finally, here is the passage from Pius XII cited by Dawes:

It remains for Us now to speak about those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless more or less connected with the truths of the Christian faith. In fact, not a few insistently demand that the Catholic religion take these sciences into account as much as possible. This certainly would be praiseworthy in the case of clearly proved facts; but caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved. If such conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized can in no way be admitted.

Obviously the supposedly Augustinian principle is contained here in no way.

Dawes begins to discuss whether someone holding to these principles can accept evolution or not, and after some discussion says:

What follows? Ken Miller attributes to Augustine the view that “even the ‘literal’ meaning of Genesis must not stand in contradiction to the kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific.'” But this is not quite correct. “The kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific'” cannot offer, nor does it claim to offer, the level of certainty that would warrant a reinterpretation of the biblical text, at least on a strict interpretation of Augustine’s principles.

In the remainder of the paper Dawes does suggest some possible solutions which do not involve rejecting either Scripture or scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, like Fr. Brian Harrison, Dawes is attempting to cause tension between Scripture and the theory of evolution, although with a different motive. It is not surprising, therefore, that Fr. Harrison uses the supposed principle of St. Augustine in a similar way, except in order to argue that we must believe that the theory of evolution is false.

But this is wrong, both on the part of Fr. Harrison and on the part of Gregory Dawes, and likewise on the part of any others who argue in a similar manner, such as Robert Sungenis. St. Augustine does not hold the supposedly Augustinian principle. The texts of St. Augustine that are actually relevant to the topic are the first one quoted in this post, as well as that cited by St. Thomas, “We should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

Natural science also makes progress in the search for truth, and the text of St. Augustine applies just as well to such progress as to any other.

Decisions of Faith

In the implicit discussion between Kurt Wise, Trent Horn, and Gregory Dawes, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes disagree about the truth of Christianity and Catholicism, while they agree that a person should be willing to decide about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas based on arguments. Kurt Wise, in contrast, claims that there can be no argument or evidence whatsoever, no matter how strong, that could ever bring him to change his mind.

If Wise’s claim is taken in the very strong sense of the claim to possess absolute subjective certainty, namely the kind that implies that he literally cannot be wrong, this has been more or less adequately refuted in the original post on sola meThus for example Wise holds that Scripture is the Word of God in a strong sense, namely one that implies that God actually asserts the things asserted in Scripture. Many Christians do not hold this. Likewise, Wise holds that Scripture asserts that the earth is young, and again, many Christians do not hold this. So Wise has the responsibility of justifying his position, rather than asserting that he has the infallible knowledge that he alone is right and that other Christians are wrong.

The same thing would be true if the issue were his general commitment to Christianity. Here it is a bit more complex because the real question in this case is, “Is it good for me to belong to a Christian community?“, but one can give neither a positive nor a negative answer to this question without asserting various facts about the world, facts that will differ from one individual to another, but facts nonetheless. Once again Wise will have no special claim to possess an ability to discern these facts infallibly.

If Wise is merely claiming to possess objective certainty, perhaps on account of the possession of divine faith which cannot be in error, then he should be open to changing his mind based on arguments, as Horn and Dawes hold, in the same way that a person should be open to acknowledging mistakes in his mathematical arguments, should someone happen to point out such mistakes.

However, our earlier discussions suggest that the real issue is different, that it is not a question of any kind of certainty, whether subjective or objective. We have seen that belief in general is voluntary, and that it involves various motives. We have seen that this applies especially to beliefs remote from the senses, and to God and religion in particular. All of this suggests that something different is at stake in claims such Wise’s. Let’s look again at Wise’s concluding statement:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

He seems to suggest having reasons for holding young earth creationism, namely reasons which would make it likely to be true. In particular, “that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” But if God says something, this seems to mean it is true. So he appears to be claiming a reason to think that creationism is objectively true. On the other hand, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist,” stands directly in contrast to this. In other words, here he seems to be saying that the kind of reasons that make a thing likely to be true or false do not matter to him.

The truth of the matter is the latter more than the former. In other words, someone who says about a religious issue, “No evidence could ever change my mind about this,” is not saying this because he possesses the kinds of certainty discussed above. Rather, he is suggesting that evidence and his motives for belief are detached from one another to such an extent that differences in evidence will never give him a sufficient motive to change his decision to believe.

We can see this in Wise’s description of his personal decision, found in the same short text from In Six Days.

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but …well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not — at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth — or at least at the same time — and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought — that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

The day came when I took the scissors to the very last verse — nearly the very last verse of the Bible. It was Revelation 22:19: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” It was with trembling hands that I cut out this verse, I can assure you! With the task complete, I was now forced to make the decision I had dreaded for so long.

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. However, at that moment I thought back to seven or so years before when a Bible was pushed to a position in front of me and I had come to know Jesus Christ. I had in those years come to know Him. I had become familiar with His love and His concern for me. He had become a real friend to me. He was the reason I was even alive both physically and spiritually. I could not reject Him. Yet, I had come to know Him through His Word. I could not reject that either. It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

This is not a description of discovering that creationism is objectively true and that evolution is objectively false. It is the description of a personal decision, which is framed in terms of being faithful to Christ and rejecting evolution, or accepting evolution and rejecting Christ. Wise chooses to be faithful to Christ. Since this was not a question of weighing evidence for anything in the first place, any evidence that comes up should never affect his motives for his decision. Thus he says that no evidence can ever change his decision.

I would argue that in this way too, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are correct, and that Kurt Wise is mistaken. The problem is that people have a hard time understanding their motives for believing things. Most people think without reflection that most of their beliefs are simply motivated by the truth and by the evidence for that truth. So if asked, “Would you change your most important and fundamental beliefs if you are confronted with conclusive evidence against them?”, most people will respond by saying that such evidence cannot and will not come up, since their beliefs are true, rather than saying that they would not change their beliefs in that situation. Kurt Wise, on the other hand, does not deny that the situation could come up, but says that he would not change his mind even in this situation.

The implication of Wise’s claim is that his motives for belief are entirely detached from evidence. This is actually true to a great extent, as can be seen from his description of his decision. However, it is not entirely true. Just as people are mistaken if they suppose that their beliefs are motivated by evidence alone, so Wise is mistaken to suppose that evidence is entirely irrelevant to his decision.

This can be seen most of all from the fact that Wise’s position requires that he make the three claims mentioned in yesterday’s post, namely that God always tells the truth, that Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that what is asserted in Scripture is asserted by God, and that Scripture asserts that the earth is young (or in the context of his decision, that evolution contradicts Scripture; he says that the conclusion that the earth is young was something additional.) If any of these three claims are mistaken, then Wise could decide to be faithful to Christ without rejecting evolution. So the framing of his decision depends on knowing that these three things are true. And precisely because these three claims together imply that evolution is false, evidence for evolution is also evidence that at least one of these three claims is mistaken. And note that in his description of the events that led up to his decision, Wise is in fact mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1.

Since evidence for evolution is evidence that one of the three claims is mistaken, then if “all the evidence in the universe” were to indicate that evolution is true, all the evidence in the universe would also indicate that Wise has made a mistake in the way he framed his decision. Evidence remains relevant to his decision, therefore, because he may have been mistaken in this way, even if the decision in itself is not about weighing evidence for anything.

Someone could respond that Wise was wrong to frame his decision in this way, or at least to make it absolute in this particular way, but that he would be right to hold absolutely to the decision to be faithful to Christ, and to say that evidence is entirely irrelevant to this decision, as long as he does not bring in evolution, creation, Scripture, and so on.

The problem with this is that even if he frames his decision as “to be faithful or unfaithful to Christ,” the framing of this decision still requires that he assert various facts about the world, just as his actual decision did. For example, if Christ did not exist, as certain people believe, then one cannot be faithful to Christ as to a person, and again he would turn out to have been mistaken in the very way he framed his decision. So his decision requires that he assert that Christ existed, which is a claim about the world. Of course it is not very likely that Christ did not exist, but evidence is relevant to the issue, and this is only one of many possible ways that he could be mistaken. If Christ was not worthy of trust, and Wise knew this, perhaps he would make a different decision.

To put this in an entirely general way, even if your decision seems to involve only motives that seem unrelated to truth and to evidence, “this is a good decision,” is itself a claim about the world. Either this claim is true, or it is false, and evidence is relevant to it. If it is false, you should change your mind about that decision. Consequently you should always be open to evidence and arguments against the truth of your position, or even against the goodness of your decision, just as Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes assert.

There is still another way that Kurt Wise is mistaken. He is mistaken to think that evidence should be irrelevant to his decision. But he is also mistaken to think that evidence is in fact irrelevant to it. He says that he would not change his mind even if all the evidence in the universe stood against him, but this is not the case. He is a human being who possesses human nature, and he is changeable in the same way that other human beings are. It is clear from the above discussion that Wise would be better off if he were more open to reality, but this does not mean that reality does not affect him at all, or that things could not happen which would change his mind, as for example if he had a personal experience of God in which God explained to him that his understanding of Scripture was mistaken.

Sola Me Revisited

Earlier we discussed the idea of sola methe claim of an individual to possess the infallible ability to discern a doctrine to be revealed by God.

Kurt Wise, concluding his contribution to the book In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creationprovides an example of someone making such a claim, at least effectively:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

Basically Wise is making three claims:

(1) God always tells the truth.

(2) Scripture is the Word of God.

(3) Scripture says that the earth is young.

It follows from these three claims that the earth is actually young. Insofar as Wise says that he would not change his mind about this no matter how much evidence was found against it, this implies that he is absolutely certain of all three of these claims. Any evidence against a young earth, in fact, is evidence against the conjunction of these three claims, and Wise is saying that he will never give up this conjunction no matter how much evidence is brought against it.

Trent Horn, in a blog post entitled Response to a Mormon Criticprovides an implicit criticism of this kind of idea when he says, “Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?”

Trent Horn is a convert to Catholicism, so his question can be understood as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did, or at least he is saying that someone who is unwilling to change his mind himself, should not criticize others for not changing their minds, even if they disagree with him.

Gregory Dawes, interviewed by Richard Marshall, provides another example of such a criticism:

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. This may sound naïve. There are moral commitments, for instance, that few of us would be prepared to abandon, even if we lacked good arguments in their support. But if the followers of Hume are right, there is a close connection between our moral beliefs and our moral sentiments that would justify this attitude. In any case, even in matters of morality, we should not be maintaining positions that have lots of arguments against them and few in their favour, just because we have made a commitment to do so.

Dawes is a former Catholic, and as in the case of Horn, his statement can be taken as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did. According to him you are not taking arguments seriously if you know in advance, like Kurt Wise, that you will never change your mind about certain things.

I would argue that relative to the question of certainty, both Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are basically right, in several different ways, and that Kurt Wise is basically wrong in those ways. I will explain this in more detail in another post.