The Rationality of Christian Faith

Contemporary atheists are fond of defining faith as “belief without evidence.”

This is not the Christian understanding of the concept, and I don’t know of any other religion that makes faith central in the way Christianity does, so it isn’t clear what their target is.  Islam perhaps?

As an argument, it is roughly on a par with defining mathematics as “absurd,” defining empirical observation as “utterly unreliable,” and going on to deduce that the scientific method is based on absurd and utterly unreliable things, and (the argument continues) anyone who trusts in science as a source of knowledge must be a very foolish person, since he places his trust in a method based completely on things which are absurd and utterly unreliable. Let us all laugh at such a fool.

The Christian understanding of faith is expressed directly, if somewhat cryptically, in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων·

This is one of the fairly rare passages where the King James Version seems to be really the best translation into English.

I want to note in particular the word ἔλεγχος which is here translated as evidence. This is an entirely legitimate translation of ἔλεγχος—which means “proof” or more precisely, “that whereby something is proven.” ἔλεγχος is what Socrates engages in.  It is what happens in courts of law during a trial (a trying; a testing).  ἔλεγχος is submitting something to a process of rigorous testing and examination.

In short, the Christian understanding of faith is so far from the stock atheistic trope of “belief without evidence,” or “belief completely without any rational foundation” that it has a word which means both evidence and rigorous testing and examination built into it.

It is a very odd modern superstition which modern atheists are especially prone to (and I have found atheists to be among the most superstitious of human beings) that human beings in ancient times were somehow extraordinarily, even inhumanly, credulous, and would more or less believe anything they were told.  Not only is there no evidence for such a belief, there is plenty of evidence that human beings in ancient times were no more or less credulous than human beings today.

David Hume, that incorrigible skeptic, writes in a justly famous passage in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: the same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit: these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter.

To think the ancients more credulous than human beings are today is unfounded and absurd.  Yes, some of them were credulous and went in for belief in absurd cults and fad ideas—phenomena we see around us all the time today.  I note, as an example, that a significant portion of the GDP of Nigeria comes from the so-called 419 scams, in which Westerners are emailed a notice claiming they have inherited millions of dollars, and all they need do to become rich is send their back account number to the “lawyer” sending the email—people fall for this obvious scam by the thousands; you yourself have almost certainly gotten multiple versions of these emails. Tell me again how “modern Westerners” are no longer gullible thanks to science or the Enlightenment?

And some of the ancients, the educated, were extremely skeptical and critical (“skeptical” and “critical” both being Greek words and concepts, after all).  They were certainly well aware that when one man or group says “This is so” and another man or group says “It is not so,” that it is necessary to test the claims of each, to rigorously examine them, and only then make a judgment about who is speaking truly.  This is what an ἔλεγχος IS.

Now it is true that Christians are called upon to believe in things which are not testable or verifiable by any ordinary means at the disposal of human beings.  Some matters concerning the nature of God and matters concerning, for example, the future state of things, exceed our human powers to know or to test directly.

But consider the following:

  1. I know that God exists; indeed more than exists, God is existence itself;
  2. I know that God is all-good; indeed more than all-good, God is goodness itself;
  3. I know that God is loving; indeed more than loving, God is love itself;
  4. I know that God is all-knowing; indeed more than all-knowing, God is truth itself.
  5. I know that God is all-trustworthy; indeed more than trustworthy, God is fidelity itself.
  6. God has revealed certain things (πράγματα) to human beings as true things, which I have no independent way to test or verify, since they exceed the cognitive powers of human beings.

These things, in number 6, are the matters to which faith pertains when it plays a cognitive role. Faith, as a supernatural virtue, particularly means an attitude or stance or comportment towards God—the best term would really be the German Verhältnis, which has only the disadvantage being a German, and not an English, word. Faith, first and foremost, is NOT a cognitive word synonymous with belief.  This is made very clear in the Epistle of James 2:19:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble.

σὺ πιστεύεις ὅτι εἷς ἐστιν ὁ θεός; καλῶς ποιεῖς· καὶ τὰ δαιμόνια πιστεύουσιν καὶ φρίσσουσιν.

Faith, πίστις, is however a word in the same linguistic ballpark as “belief”, πιστεύειν—but it is something more than mere belief.  As we are told by St. James, even the demons believe in God.  We can put it more strongly: the demons know that God exists, but they certainly do not have faith in God. Faith, therefore, is not primarily something that has to do with knowing or believing.

While it is necessary to emphasize that Christian faith, πίστις, is not primarily a cognitive word, it is not without a cognitive dimension.  It is, in one of its aspects, a holding something to be true, an assenting of the will to certain things as true, on the basis of one’s trust in God’s revelation of these things.

Knowledge is warranted true belief.  Suppose I come to believe certain divinely revealed truths to be true just on the basis of this revelation.  The basic question is: am I warranted in forming and holding such beliefs?

In ordinary human circumstances, report or testimony is at least partially warrant-conferring. We believe much of what we do about the past, for instance, on the basis of indirect testimony of those who were alive and present at the time.  We admit the testimony of witnesses as a basic kind of evidence used in trials of law.  Almost all of our scientific knowledge is something we take on trust of our science teachers—we are not in a position, after all, to directly verify such things ourselves via our own observation and experiment.  Just to take an obvious example, how many of the ~8 billion human beings has access to make use of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which one would need to “verify” some of the basic claims of particle physics? Do the scientists who do have access to it have the engineering skills or knowledge to “verify” that it has been designed properly? It is very obvious that the great majority of human knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is taken on trust—and if one wish to answer “But such knowledge can be verified in principle!”—well, unless you have in fact verified it all, that too is something you take on trust.

At the same time, common human prudence cautions us against taking all human testimony at face value. Why? Human beings are known by us sometimes to be mistaken, sometimes to lie, or for some other reason, give false reports and false testimony.  So it is wise and prudent to take testimony and report as not fully warrant-conferring—although it would be foolish to dismiss testimony and report as if they could never be warrant-conferring.  As an analogy to testimony, we regularly warrant many beliefs on the basis of our senses, such as sight, while being aware we are subject to various sorts of optical illusions, hallucinations, distortions, varying environmental and lighting conditions, blind spots, and so on. It would be manifestly foolish to hold that sense perception can never be warrant-conferring on a belief, on the grounds that sense perception is not infallible.

In this light, consider my six points above.  Is a report or revelation from God warrant-conferring? Am I rationally warranted in believing such a report or revelation? Is a divine revelation truth-warranting for a belief?

I cannot honestly see how I am not rationally warranted in forming and holding beliefs on this basis.

The normal objections which would make a report from another not fully warrant-conferring, that he might be mistaken or deceptive or ignorant of the full picture, etc., can none of them apply to God.  Since God is all-knowing and all-truthful and all-trustworthy, what reason could be adduced that belief in something revealed by God is rationally unwarranted?  To believe the word of a being who is all-knowing, all-truthful, and all-trustworthy is, as far as I can tell, the best and strongest kinds of warrant for belief one could have.

An atheist will of course say that I do not know propositions 1-5, which I claim that I do know. But that is really immaterial in this context.  The point remains that IF I know 1-5 (which is really the same as knowing 1 only, since 2-5 follow from it), THEN faith or πίστις as Christians understand that term IS properly cognitively warrant-conferring.  An atheist, as I have noted elsewhere, would have to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that there is no God, to show that God is an insufficient basis for knowledge.

And since knowledge just is warranted true belief, and faith is properly warrant-conferring, faith is a source not merely of belief, but of knowledge.

This is as far from “blind belief without evidence” as it is possible to get. It is the opposite, the antipodes, of that.

Far from being irrational belief without evidence, Christian faith constitutes fully rationally warranted knowledge.  The charge that Christian belief is irrational is true only in the following limited and specific sense: Christians know some things which are in themselves above reason, and so beyond the power of human reason to directly ascertain or verify, but in which they are fully rationally warranted in believing.   The charge that Christian belief is irrational in the sense of being rationally unwarranted belief is simply false

At most, an atheist would be able to claim something to the effect that “Nothing can be warrant-conferring that human cognition is unable to verify for itself,”—but this will leave the atheist in the impossible position of having to verify this principle, something that cannot be done.  Christians need not be impressed or concerned when the only objections advanced against them are unwarranted and self-defeating claims.

Again, I am aware that an atheist will attempt to challenge the warrant-conditions of faith, but—and this point is crucial—he cannot do so in a non-question-begging way, unless and until he has established that there is no God.  That is, until he has demonstrated the truth of atheism in the traditional sense of belief in the proposition that there is no God.  This is so because the existence or non-existence of God is not a matter which leaves the epistemic landscape unchanged; the very nature of warrant will differ depending on this question, so it cannot be prescinded from in favor of purely epistemological arguments which, for now, table the ontological question of the existence of God.  I write this paragraph merely as a reminder of this, because it is such an important point; I have discussed this point elsewhere in Atheists Cannot Evade the Existence Question, which I invite you to read if you haven’t.

Is Belief in God a Delusion?

A persistent atheistic trope is calling belief in God delusional or a delusion.  The most obvious popular example is Richard Dawkins’ pro-atheism book The God Delusion, a book that, while popularly successful, is notorious for its shallowness and lack of rigorous argumentation (interested readers may wish to look at Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion for a highly detailed account of the many deficiencies under which Dawkins’ book suffers).

Is belief in God a delusion? The most widely used and accepted definition of a delusion comes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):

Delusion. A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).

Well, things don’t look very promising for the atheist trope, do they?

To begin with only the most obvious point, delusions are standardly defined in such a way as to exclude articles of religious faith, something for which belief in God obviously qualifies.

Now, an atheist of course could claim that the DSM’s defining delusion in such a way as to exclude commonly held articles of religious faith is an error, a kind of special pleading exemption for religious beliefs, which are not being treated the same as other beliefs. On this basis, the atheist might insist on adopting a different definition of delusion. But this very demand for changing the standard definition appears to be a kind of special pleading on the part of the atheist.   Why shouldn’t religious beliefs be treated in a manner different that other sorts of beliefs? The theist merely needs to note that religious beliefs are not like other beliefs, because they are about a particular part of reality that is sui generis, viz. the divine or transcendent dimension of being.  The atheist could respond that there simply is no such dimension of being, but would immediately fall right back into special pleading and/or begging the question against the theist—unless of course the atheist can bring forth proof that there is no divine or transcendent dimension of being, a proof we still await.

But of course the theist need not rest her case on the specific exemption for articles of religious belief in the DSM’s definition of delusion. Let it go. Let us look at the other factors which make a delusion a delusion.  We see right way that there are three.  To count as a delusion a belief must be

  1. based on incorrect inference about external reality
  2. firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes
  3. firmly sustained despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary

Let’s start with criterion 2.  It appears that the authors of the DSM are aware of something which many atheists manage to somehow overlook, namely, the consensus gentium.  What is the consensus gentium? It is merely a technical name for the common consensus of humanity.  And the common consensus of humanity speaks overwhelmingly in favor of theism.

Here too, it is open to the atheist to object that the consensus gentium is not infallible and to treat it as such is to commit an ad populum fallacy (an appeal to popularity).  But the consensus gentium does not, in itself, constitute an ad populum fallacy—it is, in itself, not a proof of a given proposition, but it does constitute evidence.  To dispute the consensus gentium requires one to hold that the majority of human beings are deceived or delusional in their beliefs (as atheists do hold).  But this view seems to be strong evidence for the proposition “human belief formation is highly unreliable,” since it reliably produces false or delusional beliefs.  But the belief that human belief formation is highly unreliable serves as an all-purpose defeater for any belief whatever, including itself and the belief that “belief in God is delusional.” In other words, to dispute the consensus gentium without specially pleading that human belief formation is reliable everywhere except with respect to the divine, seems to be a self-defeating move.

Just on the face of it, it is obvious that theism is the majority belief of human beings, and always has been, just as atheism is tiny minority belief, even if one grown loud and strident in our modern, highly secularized society.  Theism very obviously fails to meet criterion 2 of the DSM’s definition of a delusion, so it isn’t one.  So far, we’ve seen that belief in God is not a delusion twice over. But there’s more.

Things are worse yet for the atheist who wants to use the “delusion” trope.  Criterion 1 specifies that the belief must be the result of some kind of faulty reasoning, an “incorrect inference about external reality.”  And criterion 3 specifies that a delusion is a belief held “despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.”

In other words, it would need to be shown that theism is (1) irrational and (2) obviously false.

And of course atheism has not met either of these challenges.  It has not even come close. In fact, atheists by and large admit that not only have they not proven either of these things, that they cannot do so, more, that it is impossible to do so.

It is no accident that the vast majority of today’s atheists are “lack of belief” atheists.  They follow philosopher Antony Flew’s 1972 redefinition of “atheism” to mean “lack of belief in God” as opposed to the standard and traditional definition “belief that God does not exist” (which is still held by ~80% of people, according to the Oxford Handbook of Atheism).

The “lack of belief” atheist does not claim that he knows or even believes that God does not exist, but only that he remains unconvinced that God does exist.  Well, good for him. (Actually, it’s bad for him, but set that aside).  That someone happens to be unconvinced that a belief is true in no way indicates that the belief is false.  It isn’t even a statement about whatever the belief is about, but a statement about a psychological property of a belief-holder.  If A says, “I lack a belief that G,” a perfectly legitimate response is to make a psychological report of one’s own and note “And I have one. What of it?”

There are, to my knowledge, only three serious arguments which attempt to show that theism is false, that is, that God does not exist:

  1. The Argument from Evil, which holds that the existence of unnecessary evil in the world is incompatible with an all-good being, which a perfect being, God, must be.
  2. The Argument from the Unnecessariness of God, which holds that God is unnecessary as an explanation for anything, and therefore is merely a gratuitous hypothesis which, following Ockham’s Razor, we ought not to make.
  3. The Argument from Self-Contradiction, which holds that the concept of “God” is self-contradictory, and therefore, God cannot exist.

All three arguments are notoriously weak and easily refuted:

  1. The Argument from Evil can be highly persuasive as an appeal to emotion.  One points to some horror or tragedy, personal or historical, and demands “How could a good God let this happen?” The honest answer, and the rational one, is that we don’t know, and we aren’t in a position to know the thoughts of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect being. Most theists believe that, since God is good, He does not cause or will evil, but only permits or allows it for a sufficiently good reason, which we simply do not (yet, fully) understand.  Nor can the atheist rule out the possibility that whatever evil he regards as “too much” is not, in a way beyond human understanding, for the best when seen from God’s point of view.  The most an atheist could do, it seems, is what Ivan Karamazov does in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and willfully refuse to accept some evil or another (Ivan cannot accept the suffering of innocent children).  Yet, one of the basic elements of faith, as Christians use that term, is trust in God.  The Argument from Evil may well test one’s faith, but if it convinces, it does not do so as a rational argument. Christians trust that in the end, even though we do not understand how, in the words of St. Julian of Norwich “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
  2. The Argument from the Unnecessariness of God fails for two reasons.  As in the Argument from Evil, we simply don’t know enough to be sure that God is not necessary; on the contrary, there is a very strong case that God is necessary as the only possible answer to “The question of Being” namely “Why is there anything at all, and not rather nothing?” But even if we could be sure, which we cannot, that we need not invoke God as an explanation, to infer the nonexistence of God from this is simply a non sequitur.  At most, this argument could aim to show that belief in God is an unreasonable postulate to make, in which case it collapses into the Evidentialist Argument (see below).
  3. And as for the Argument from Self-Contradiction (and also it’s cousin, the Argument that Religious Language is Meaningless), well, no one has ever succeeded in making anything close to a good argument for the notion.  There are of course ways one can define God such that the concept is self-contradictory (and it causes the theist no pain to admit that God so defined does not exist), but no one has ever shown even a good candidate for contradiction in the traditional conceptions of God. The “paradox of omnipotence” which sometimes impresses philosophical beginners is not a paradox at all, once one grasps the fairly basic point that “power to do anything possible” ≠ “power to do things that are impossible.”

With the failure of the only robust atheistical arguments on the table (and they are not very robust), in our time we have seen atheism retreat and retrench from ontology to epistemology, and the rise of the “lack of belief” atheist, which brings us to the Evidentialist Argument.

The Evidentialist Argument is not an argument that God does not exist, and does not attempt to prove that theism is false. It merely argues that belief in God is not sufficiently warranted by the evidence to count as a reasonable belief.

Before taking this up, we should note that even if the Evidentialist Argument turned out to be 100% successful, it would still fail to establish that belief in God is a delusion, since by definition, a delusion must be “firmly sustained despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary,” and as we have just seen, the atheist has no such “incontrovertible and obvious proof” of the falsity of theism.  He doesn’t even have a remotely plausible one.  Nowadays, the typical atheist doesn’t even try to make an argument.

As we have already seen, belief in God is NOT a delusion, since criteria 2 and 3 cannot be met by the atheist who claims it to be one.  But what about criterion 1? Is belief in God based on an “incorrect inference” about reality? Can the atheist at least meet one out of the three criteria that establish delusion?

No, he cannot. The best the atheist can do is appeal to his own personal incredulity.  He looks at the evidence (or doesn’t look, commonly) and says “I’m not convinced.” The theist looks at the evidence and is convinced.  What sort of epistemic error is the theist making? Why is her belief absurd or rationally unwarranted? These questions have simply never been answered in a way that is non-question-begging, that is, in a way that doesn’t assume from the beginning, tacitly or explicitly, that belief in God is absurd or rationally unwarranted.

The best case the atheist has, it seems to me, is a specularly weak one, but one which happens to sell fairly well in our age. I mean the Appeal to Scientism. Science is so highly regarded today as a way of acquiring knowledge, that unreflective persons can sometimes be induced to accept the claim that “scientific knowledge” is an absolute touchstone of all knowledge or knowledge as such, and so “only scientific knowledge is valid knowledge” which, joined with “there is no scientific evidence of God” would indeed yield the desired result, so

  1. Only scientific knowledge is valid knowledge.
  2. There is no scientific evidence of God
  3. ∴ It is unreasonable to believe in God.

This is the Argument to Scientism in a nutshell. It’s valid and premise 2 is true. The argument fails because premise 1 is obviously false. Science is not the only source of knowledge we have. Science itself makes use of extra-scientific knowledge, and does so necessarily and constantly: it is part of the scientific method to use both mathematics and empirical observation (i.e. experience)—and neither mathematics nor experience, which science seeks to explain, are cases of scientific knowledge, just as such. One is not “doing science” when one is having experience. Another instance of a proposition that is not a scientific one is Premise 1 of the Argument to Scientism itself. Scientism, as a doctrine, is notoriously self-refuting: if it is true, we must reject it as true, on the grounds of itself, because it isn’t itself scientific knowledge.  It fails its own truth test.

The Argument to Scientism also falls to a simple objection of common sense (another often valid source of knowledge, and indeed, the root of the consensus gentium spoken of above): we know that science studies nature (or nature plus human activities, if you count the social sciences as full sciences), and we also know that God, as traditionally understood, is transcendent of nature. God simply doesn’t fall under science’s domain, any more than goodness does, or for that matter, logic and math do.  Why on earth would a  very excellent method for studying nature discover something it neither looks for nor can see, given what its method and scope are? The short answer is: science simply has nothing to say about God; it studies nature. Period.  So appeals to science, including bogus appeals to principles that aren’t scientific but look vaguely “science-y”, as in the Argument to Scientism, fail because they cannot succeed without unreasonably making science omni-competent in every sphere of knowledge, which it obviously is not (Who should you vote for, according to the scientific method?), and reducing all other sources of knowledge to nullity, which would would destroy mathematics and logic and experience as valid kinds of knowledge, and so take science down with it.

To bring this to a close, even if we charitably overlook the DSM’s explicit distinction between delusion and articles of religious belief (one that is entirely reasonable, as I argued), belief in God is still not a delusion: the atheist who claims that it is a delusion cannot meet even one of the three criteria needed to establish a belief as delusional.

I conclude that the atheist trope of calling belief in God “a delusion” amounts to nothing more than name-calling. It doesn’t have the slightest amount of rational weight behind it.

The Tripartite Platonic Soul

Plato has the distinction, among many others, of presenting the Western world with the first systematic λόγος or rational account of the ψυχή or soul; Plato is, in other words, the first psychologist. Plato’s psychology, expressed most extensively in the Republic and the Phaedrus, is still entirely plausible as a basic account of the nature and structure of the human psychē.

Plato was a philosopher with the soul of a poet, and often expressed his insights in images. He gives two famous images of the soul.  In this post, I’ll be giving you the one from the Republic.

Plato, or the Platonic Socrates, asks us to imagine a human being, and inside this human being, to imagine three part: a human being, a lion, and a many-headed monster (familiar to the Greeks and still today as the hydra, the monster that when one head is cut off, three more grow in its place—making it an ever growing, ever more-dangerous monster).

According to Plato—and to Aristotle, who follows him on this point—the human soul is basically tripartite.  It consists of a properly human part—this is represented by the man, and is the thinking and reasoning part of the soul.  In a properly working soul, this is the part that should rule or govern.  However, the problem with reason is that it has no force. Its action consists essentially in λόγος, thinking and talking.  Now, talking can be directing and commanding, but directing and commanding, even when the direction is sound, is useless if the directions are not followed. Or if one’s reasoning part is corrupted, such that it is reduced from its role as ruler to an instrument of a power properly beneath it, in which case reason because a mere tool, instrument, or slave—of honor, for example, or the passions.

The lowest part of the soul is the appetitive part, the part that is the home of our irrational fears and desires.  “Irrational” is, in Greek, ἄλογον, that is, without λόγος.  Neither fear nor desire can “talk”—we have to elevate them for them even to “speak”, but if we do so, and speak for them, we find that desire only screams, like a small child “I WANT IT!” and fear only screams, period, or at most screams “RUN AWAY!” or even less helpfully “DO SOMETHING!” Worse still, unlike reason, which is directed at truth, and so can never conflict with itself, since every truth is compatible with every other truth, the irrational, appetitive part of the soul is in constant war with itself: fear vs desire, fear vs fear, desire vs desire.  Hence, Plato’s image of the many-headed monster also signifies that the many heads are each pulling in a different direction, and often they turn on one another, and attack and devour one another.

Unlike the modern world, which tends to more simplistically divide the soul into a rational part and an irrational part, the ancient and medieval world always recognized a third, middle part of the soul, a tertium quid able to run interference and mediate between the higher reasoning part of the soul and the lower irrational appetitive part.  This, in Plato’s image, is portrayed as a lion.  (Aristotle, less glamorously compares it to a faithful hound.)

The middle part of the soul is the θυμός, a word that is not easy to translate into English. It could be rendered as “spirit” or “spiritedness” or “heart” (if rightly understood).  θυμός is what we encounter in phrases like “team spirit” or “esprit de corps.” A horse or a body of soldiers who are gung ho may be called “spirited.” The θυμός is related to the angry part of the soul—for anger, used correctly, is anger at injustice, according to the ancients, and according to Plato, justice is first of all the right ordering of the soul.

When we have a bad or unseemly passion that makes us desire something we should not desire, reason may counsel against the passion as bad or unseemly, but again, reason can only talk.  It is the θυμός that gets angry that we are being reduced to the slave of a passion. One who acts not from reason, but from a blind passion, is not acting freely, even if the passion is his or her own—for passions are not chosen or willed, but come over us, they move us, they affect us; hence they are called “emotions” or “affects” or “passions”—”passion” is the opposite word to “action.”  When in the grip of a passion, we undergo it, we suffer it, we are not agents who act, but patients.

Anger, on the other hand, is a very active and powerful force.  Blind anger is, of course, no better than blind passion. However, according to Plato, in the properly functioning soul, the θυμός, through discipline and training, obeys the reasoning part of the soul.  Reason commands, and θυμός obeys.  And the primary role of θυμός is to use its angry active force to engage the passions on their own level of force, and beat them into submission, to regulate and control them, as reason directs.  The θυμός is therefore like the police, who enforce the laws the rulers make upon the citizens, not all of whom, but some of whom, require force to obey the law—because like the many-headed monster, each citizen goes his own way, and some, left to themselves, will go outside the law.

In the Republic, Socrates illustrates the conflict between passion (ἐπιθυμία) and θυμός with a story about one Leonitus and his eyes. It transpired that Leonitus was walking back to Athens from a trip down the Piraeus, the port of Athens, and his return journey took him past the pit outside the walls of the city where the Athenians tossed the corpses of executed criminals who were deemed not to merit proper cremation.  Leonitus immediately felt himself seized with a great desire to go and gawk at the bodies in the pit. At the same time, he felt shame to have such desire.  He struggled with himself for a bit, and finally gave in to his desire, and gazing upon the bodies, he angrily cursed his eyes, saying “Go on! Drink your fill of the beautiful sight!”

What this shows is that, in addition to a desire for something, there is in us another part that can fight against the desire, becoming angry at our own weakness for giving in (as Leonitus did).  There’s a scene in Season Five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the heroes discover a skinned corpse—and the following dialogue occurs:

Xander: “This is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

Buffy: “And yet my eyes won’t look away. Stupid eyes!”

That is another perfect Leonitus moment. We’ve all had them. How many of us have had the urge to rubberneck at the scene of a traffic accident, for example? Almost all of us, judging by the way traffic slows down. And is there not for most of us (I hope) a sense of shame in wanting merely to gawk at someone else’s misfortune?

Here is my rendering of Plato’s Image of the Tripartite Human Soul:

Platos Tripartite Soul




Plato, Moser, and Existentially Non-Neutral Knowledge

I was reading the entry on Philosophy of Religion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  If you don’t know the SEP, it is an online encyclopedia of philosophy that solicits its entries from professional philosophers and is peer reviewed to ensure the quality of its entries.  As with anything, sometimes it fails to be perfectly neutral, as each author presents what he thinks is most relevant, but since the replies are done by professionals, often those outstanding in the areas they are writing about, and since they are vetted and peer-reviewed by other professionals, the general level of the SEP is very high quality.  It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, to cite the SEP in professional publications. In other words, it is not, for example, Wikipedia.

In the course of the entry, I came across a description of an argument strategy employed by Dr. Paul Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, expert in Theory of Knowledge and Philosophy of Religion, author of 8 books and 151 published articles, editor of 16 books, etc. Here’s his Curriculum Vitae for the curious. And a list of some of his books. I mention all this to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Moser is an expert in the philosophy of religion and also in theory of knowledge.  This is relevant since his argument involves both.  Here’s the bit from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Taking a very different approach to theism, Paul Moser has recently criticized what he refers to as the preoccupation in philosophy of religion with what he calls “spectator evidence for God,” evidence that can be assessed without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously. Eschewing fideism, Moser holds that when one seeks God and willingly allows oneself to be transformed by God’s perfect love, one’s very life can become evidence of the reality of God (see Moser 2008, 2010). While this proposal may worry secular philosophers of religion, Moser is not out of keeping with the pre-Christian Platonic tradition that maintained that inquiry into the good, the true, and the beautiful involved inquiry in which the inquirer needed to endeavor to be good, true, and beautiful.

Being me, I made it into a picture card, so


The picture isn’t of anyone in particular. It’s a detail from a painting by Nicolai Fechin that I use sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to use a picture of Moser, since these aren’t his words, but a description of an argument strategy of his.

To the point at hand: It’s important to note a couple of things:

1. This is not an argument. This is a description of an argument strategy by Moser.

2. I have not studied Moser’s work as of this writing. The above argument strategy is intriguing—I have had some ideas along similar lines—and I found it interesting enough to (1) share it on Twitter, and (2) get a copy of Moser’s book, which I will be reading in the near future.

Naturally, Twitter being Twitter, I was immediately attacked for my “bad argument” by an angry atheist, the fact I wasn’t making an argument notwithstanding, the fact that Moser’s argument is not even being presented here, but only described notwithstanding—naturally, said angry Australian atheist felt that he had all he needed to dismiss the ‘argument’ in question out of hand.  This is not untypical of the level of discourse one finds on Twitter:

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Now, since just from the description it is clear that Moser is not making either of the following arguments,

  1. I imagine God exists.
  2. This makes me feel better.
  3. ∴ God exists.


  1. I have certain feelings.
  2. ∴ God exists.

it’s clear that MrOzAtheist is indeed constructing a straw man, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and I (and others) called him on it. He belongs to that particularly noxious breed of online atheists who insist on telling you what you really mean and then ‘refuting’ this “real meaning” that he has told you you really mean—in other words, they have raised the straw man to a high art form.

In their defense (sort of), I honestly think that many of them are incapable, for whatever reason, of conceiving that there are or could be serious and substantial theistic arguments.  They are so ideologically blinded by their atheism, that they are literally unable to recognize the possibility that there might be strong evidence or good arguments which dispute their position. This is one reason that it is always unpleasant to argue with ideologues.  No doubt many of them have encountered Christian ideologues and are unable to see that they have become exactly what they think they are against.  Personally, I have primarily encountered this kind of ideological blindness among atheists, feminists, and Objectivists (i.e. Ayn Rand cultists).

I do have a point concerning Moser’s position and ideological blindness.  I think it is noncontroversial that certain belief-commitments and emotional commitments can induce a kind of blindness or inability to see, or to fairly or reasonably evaluate evidence and arguments.  In other words, one’s cognitive powers can become corrupted or distorted both by certain convictions and/or by certain passions.

If this is so, then it is entirely possible (and in fact very likely) that human cognitive powers, our reason, is not merely an existentially neutral instrument, as one of the usually unquestioned dogmas of the Enlightenment/Modernity suggests.  Indeed, going back at least to Plato, in the Image of Cave and elsewhere, the Western philosophical tradition has usually maintained that human cognition is existentially non-neutral, that there are things that one cannot know, that there are things one is necessarily blind to, depending on the condition of one’s ψυχή (psychē or soul).  Here’s an enjoyable presentation of Plato’s Cave Image in claymation on YouTube.

Plato compares the νοῦς, the intellect, to “the eye of the ψυχή” or “eye of the mind” and extends his analogy, arguing that just as it is not possible for one to turn one’s eyes around to see what is behind one without turning one’s head or whole body around also, neither is it possible to turn one’s νοῦς to the higher realities without a turning-around or reorientation of one’s entire soul or ψυχή in the direction of the true and the good, a μετάνοια. In other words, one must be in a certain state of the soul analogous to health, which Plato calls ἀρετή, virtue, to be able to see or comprehend certain truths about what is.  Those who are not in the right state of soul, those who are vicious, will be unable to see what truly is, due to their being “turned” the wrong way, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who are not only facing the wrong way, but chained in such a way that they are unable to turn around.

Plato’s Cave Image is complicated (I hold that it recapitulates the entire Republic in miniature, occurring at the dramatic center of the dialogue, or the 7/12ths point—I don’t have time here to get into the musical significance of 7/12ths or Plato’s musical compositional structure)—but one thing it safe to say is that one primary meaning of the “chains” that bind the prisoners in the cave in place are their beliefs about the nature of what is.  Plato has in mind, I think, the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form in all cultures as well as the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form by growing up in a given culture—but in a democratic society, there is no reason one cannot forge one’s own chains by the adoption of an ideology.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the case of ethics, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man.  One who has not been raised well and educated well (these are the same) will be unable to apprehend the principles of ethics:


Lewis is of course simply affirming the classical teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Christian tradition including thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Not everyone is equally capable of apprehending the good; in particular, the evil cannot do so, and this blindness to the good is, in no small part, what enables the evil to be evil. We are apt to say things like, “How could anyone do a thing like that? Couldn’t he see how wrong it is?” Sadly, no, he couldn’t.  Here’s Aristotle:


Aristotle emphasizes the role of passions, and particularly of pleasure and pain in human education/upbringing.  Philosopher Edward Feser has an illuminating account of Aquinas’ teaching that disorder desire, particularly disordered sexual desire, has directly corruptive effect on the mind.  In “What’s the deal with sex? Part II” Feser discusses Aquinas’ argument that the first “daughter of lust” (there are eight) is “blindness of mind”:

Now, when, for whatever reason, we take pleasure in some thing or activity, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is good, even if it is not good; and when, for whatever reason, we find some idea attractive, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is true and reasonable, even if it is neither. Everyone knows this; you don’t have to be a Thomist to see that much. The habitual binge drinker or cocaine snorter takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble. The ideologue is so in love with a pet idea that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it. The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career. And so forth. That taking pleasure in what is in fact bad or false can impair the intellect’s capacity to see what is good and true is a familiar fact of everyday life.

Now, there is no reason whatsoever why things should be any different where sex is concerned. Indeed — and this is part of Aquinas’s point — precisely because sexual pleasure is unusually intense, it is even more likely than other pleasures are to impair our ability to perceive what is true and good when what we take pleasure in is something that is in fact bad. In particular, habitually indulging one’s desire to carry out sexual acts that are disordered will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that they are disordered. For one thing, the pleasure a person repeatedly takes in those acts will give the acts the false appearance of goodness; for another, the person will be inclined to look for reasons to regard the acts as good or at least harmless, and disinclined to look for, or give a dispassionate hearing to, reasons to think them bad. Hence indulgence in disordered sexual behavior has a tendency to impair one’s ability to perceive the true and the good, particularly in matters of sexual morality. In short, sexual vice makes you stupid.

Put another way: certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge about the highest things, e.g. the good, the beautiful, and the true, are existentially non-neutral kinds of knowledge: there are truths, that is, which are evident only to the wise and virtuous, because folly and vice, of themselves, have a corruptive effect on our natural cognitive powers.

It seems perfectly evident to me that this is true.  The Enlightenment conception of reason as calculative ratio is a wholly unwarranted reduction of reason to one of its lower functions, although it is perhaps true that reason as a merely instrumental ratio is a typical case of existentially neutral knowledge; at least I see no reason in principle why vice or folly or ideological dogmatism would make a person less able to do mathematical calculations and certain other types of reckoning.  But it seems flatly absurd to assert that all knowledge is like this.  Those who do seem to be people who are paradoxically and paradigmatically blinded by an ideology, namely, scientism.  Since their ideology requires them to conceive all knowledge as scientific knowledge, and they almost always insist that scientific knowledge is existentially neutral knowledge, they must deny that there is anything that can be known to the wise and virtuous that cannot be known to the unwise and vicious—despite the fact that this is evidently false.

To return to Moser’s position: if I read it correctly, Moser is asserting that knowledge of God is not a case of existentially neutral knowledge, or what he calls “spectator evidence of God,” but rather argues that evidence of God cannot be properly apprehended or accessed “without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously.”  In other words, to come to know God will necessarily be an existentially transformational event for a human being which will by its very nature involve a reorientation or “turning around” of the ψυχή—Plato’s “turning around” of the soul becomes in Latin convertio, conversion.  One cannot see God without a turning around of the soul (as a condition of the possibility) and one cannot see God without a being turned around of the soul (as a necessary consequence).

Again, I have not actually studied Moser’s argument.  So, necessarily, I am not elucidating Moser’s argument nor defending it. What I am doing here is showing how something like what I understand him to be saying is plausible—and also how it is manifestly not “God exists, because of feelings I have.”

Atheists tend to become angry and indignant when they are told that their atheism is a result of cognitional malfunction, but neither anger nor indignation is a sound counterargument.  As I have written elsewhere (following Plantinga), if God does exist, then it is highly likely that properly functioning human cognitive powers are such as to dispose us to believe this, and in a warrant-conferring way; and it would also then be the case that atheism is necessarily a result of some kind of cognitive malfunction or cognitive blindness.  This would explain why around 90% of human beings (at least) in all times and places do in fact form a belief in the existence of God or the divine.  Atheists need to account for this phenomenon, and needless to say, “atheists are smarter than everyone else” is false (although it is obvious that many atheists do believe this, and indeed, the pleasure they take in feeling themselves smarter than everyone else is one of the main motivators of their atheism).

It seems to me that “cognitive God blindness”, something loosely analogous to color-blindness, is a much better explanation—especially when one recognizes that some kinds of cognitive blindness are willfully motivated on the basis of ideological belief-commitments and passions.  Atheism is certainly an excellent candidate for a willfully-motivated dyscognition; recognition of the existence of God would require a radical reorientation not only of one’s belief-structure and comprehensive worldview but of one’s entire existence or being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s apt term)—no part of one’s life is likely to be unaltered.  And if one has a strong desire not to alter one’s life in a fundamental way (perhaps because one is habituated to some vice that he recognizes he would have to give up, and therefore the pleasure he his habituated himself to experience in indulging the vice—as, for example, St. Augustine’s addiction to womanizing), then one eo ipso has a strong motivation to prevent oneself from seeing evidence that might force one to recognize the existence of God, a recognition which would necessarily result in the upheaval of one’s life.

It seems likely that a common motivation for atheism in modernity is our peculiar conception of freedom as autonomy combined with our implicit belief that freedom as autonomy is the highest good—in such a conception, the existence of God becomes existentially intolerable, because God is necessarily a threat to my personal, infinite autonomy, more, God is necessarily incompatible with such a conception of personal autonomy.  If God is God, then I am not God, and modernity teaches that not only am I God, but that it is both my right and my highest good to be God.  Both these things are false, of course, since I am not God, but I cannot even maintain the fantasy of being God, if God truly exists and confronts me as God.  It also seems likely that the root of contemporary Western nihilism lies somewhere in this area; see for example David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing“, or consider Jacobi’s remark, contra Fichte, (which incidentally is from the same essay where Jacobi uses the word “nihilism” for the first time in a serious philosophical context):


To sum up:

  1. I promise a fuller account of Moser’s position once I have worked through his book.
  2. It should be obvious that it is possible both (1) that there is existentially non-neutral knowledge and (2) knowledge of God is almost certainly of this sort.
  3. The concept of existentially non-neutral knowledge as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Lewis, and others cannot be dismissed out of hand as a mere appeal to feelings. This is a completely absurd straw man that barely merits even the minimal response of pointing out that it is a straw man.

Galileo Was Not “the Father of Modern Science”

This is Tim O’Neill‘s account of why Galileo does not deserve the title “the father of modern science,” although Galileo has sometimes been called this.

You can read Tim’s original post on Quora as Why is Galileo Considered the “Father of Modern Science”?  here.

See also my “Galileo was a Dogmatic, Unscientific Ass“.

Galileo Father of Modern Science