Monday, October 30, 2006

Unbelief

I've just returned from a brief hiatus, off to the American Catholic Philosophical Association to give a paper on the logic of relations in Saint Anselm's De processione Spiritus Sancti. I'd like to say that I gave the paper to a packed house, and indeed, I could say that with some truth, but it would be misleading, since the house in which I gave my paper was an annex to the main hotel where the convention was meeting, and it was packed because we were meeting in a rather small room in that house. Not exactly a broom closet, but not Shea Stadium either.

The meeting of the ACPA was up in Granville Ohio this year, at Dennison University, so I was able to just drive up there on the day of my talk. It's not a particularly long drive, but it certainly afforded me plenty of time to mull over some things that have been percolating in my psukhĂȘ for a while. Frequent readers of this blog will remember that I had occasion to meet Eamon Duffy a couple weeks ago, and that meeting was rather an inspiration for me, since he is a great Catholic in addition to being a great scholar, and I found myself contemplating this congruence of intellect and faith. Some folks, it seems, find intellect to be a stumbling block to faith, and some folks don't. This is an interesting epistemological problem: the limits of knowledge are roughly the same for everyone, so why is it that, in any given sample of reasonably well-educated persons, you will find an admixture of everything from fanatical commitment to fundamentalist religion to abject atheism?

My reasons for pondering this problem are far from academic in themselves, however. Like many religious persons, educated or not, I sometimes have my own doubts about things, and that can be rather troubling. In re-reading Eamon Duffy's Faith of Our Fathers I was struck by the fact that he begins with a chapter called "When Belief Fails", in which he recounts how the sudden death of a very close acquaintance nearly drove him to atheism. In the end it did not, but his faith was forever changed by that experience. Those who have read Bertrand Russell's famous essay, Why I am not a Christian, will remember that for Russell, the arguments for God's existence all fail, and the immoral behavior of religious folks is a sufficient reason for rejecting religious belief (somewhat ironic, if one consider's Russell's own behavior, but then he was never religious to begin with). Sir Anthony Kenny has a new book out called What I Believe, a surprisingly short little book given the title, and there are two chapters in it called "Why I Am Not a Theist." Presumably it's a little more difficult to explain something like that if one was once a Roman Catholic priest. Richard Dawkins, in his most recent book The God Delusion explains with great polemical force that there exists no rational warrant for belief in God in the first place, and so we must explain it by appealing to a feature of the human genome that can be explained in terms of natural selection, namely, the very useful phenotype of a childlike trust in one's parents when very young.

For me, none of these cases has much resonance, though if I were asked with whom do I have the most sympathy, I would have to say my own experience comes closer to that of Dawkins than the others. I can certain empathize with what Professor Duffy went through, but I cannot say that I ever suffered a moment of grief such that I was tempted to abandon faith entirely. My question, at such times, has always been something along the lines of "What kind of a being are you?" rather than "Oh, I guess there's no God then...too bad, really." In other words, I continued to believe that God was there, or else I was just too cowardly to believe that he wasn't there. I came through such feelings relatively unscathed, which I now believe to have been more than just damn fool's luck. If I learned anything from my suffering, it has been that suffering can be redemptive and, hence, is not in itself something to be avoided at any and all cost.

Richard Dawkins is not a bad evolutionary biologist, but as I have remarked before in this space that does not preserve him from making some remarkably bad--indeed, in some cases embarrassingly bad--arguments when he steps outside the domain of his own area of expertise. To notice the badness of his arguments, however, is not the same thing as to be fully immune from their effects. This will be particularly true for folks who, like me, work very closely with science and its foundations as a matter of professional expertise. There are a variety of different models of scientific explanation available to those who like to study such things--perhaps a very great variety, if one happens to be an anti-realist--and any one of them can be deployed to explain virtually anything that is out there to be explained. In light of that fact it can be very tempting, in difficult or worrisome times, to wonder whether the explanations one has aren't really all the explanation there is. To put that a little more straightforwardly: if one studies biology and physics and neuropsychology and who knows what all, one may sometimes find oneself wondering what the concept of God is supposed to be for in all of this. If I can account for good behavior, bad behavior, natural behavior, thoughts, actions, feelings, planetary evolution, the origin of life, and the rest, without ever appealing to God as an explanans, then why do I posit his existence in the first place?

One alternative--the one that I think is most popular among certain sorts of intellectuals--is to just deny that we really can explain all of those sorts of things without God. I have never found that particular assertion all that persuasive myself, but even if I did it would not really address the problem I am talking about here, which is the fact that, whether or not science can explain everything, sometimes some people, like me, wonder whether God's existence is very likely given everything that we know about the sorts of things that God's existence used to be invoked to explain. This is principally a psychological problem, a problem to do with me, rather than a metaphysical or epistemological problem about God. In spite of my worries, I take it for granted that God does exist, and worry instead about whether I am right to do so.

Sometimes you can rationalize these worries away. If you're worried about the problem of evil, there is a tidy theological story to tell that, at least in my opinion, more than sufficies to dispense with Russell's petty little worries. Or perhaps you are a student of neurobiology and you know that every facet of our mental life can be explained in physicalist terms; perhaps you are beginning to worry that the concept of an afterlife may be something of a category mistake given that our conscious, waking experiences are all due to chemical interactions in the brain, and that our moral choices, our beliefs and desires, and everything else about the "I" in there is reducible to the activity of neurons of one sort or another. Even the possibilty of free will seems to be up for grabs, depending upon how one defines it. But again there is a story to tell, one that equates the human soul not with the sum total of our conscious mental life but with something else, something non material that survives the death of our body waiting to be resurrected in a glorified body that is also not material but spiritual.

These kinds of worries come and go for me, as I imagine they or similar worries come and go for a lot of people. How each person deals with his or her doubts must be peculiar to the particular personality and psychology within which they arise. My own method is not particularly effect, even for me, since I continue to have doubts from time to time, and in addition to these skeptical doubts there is the added burden of knowing that you're not supposed to desire heaven merely from an egoistic point of view, that is, you're not supposed to be worrying about your own continued existence--we must say, with Saint Thomas More:
this I wot well, that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall therefore with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he suffer me for my faults to perish, yet shall I then serve for a praise of his justice.
Perhaps it takes a saintly person to commit himself to that sentiment and I do not mean to compare myself to such a person, but for me St. Thomas More's words have been a very great comfort in times of very great trial.

So in the end, although my worries are far closer to those of Richard Dawkins, I think that my settled thoughts are far closer to those of Eamon Duffy, who writes of his own return from the shadowlands:
There was no miraculous conviction. Perplexities and pain remained. I had and I have fewer certainties than before, and there are many areas of the faith that I gratefully and wholeheartedly accept which are opaque to me, like the idea of life after death. But now I know that faith is a direction, not a state of mind; states of mind change and veer about, but we can hold a direction. It is not in its essence a set of beliefs about anything, though it involves such beliefs. It is a loving and grateful openness to the gift of being. The difference between a believer and a non-believer is not that the believer has one more item in his mind, in his universe. It is that the believer is convinced that reality is to be trusted, that in spite of appearances the world is very good. When we respond to that good, we are not responding to something we have invented, or projected. Meaning is not at our beck and call, and neither is reality.
One's response to this state of affairs will always be very personal. For me, personally, it is a sufficient reason to reject unbelief, and to embrace belief in the Catholic faith wholeheartedly, even though my heart sometimes quails.

1 comment:

John said...

Beautiful post. I'm going to remember those quotes from More and Duffy.