Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sensible Thoughts on Plain Sense

Dr. Michael Liccione has a fascinating post up today on the topic of the "plain sense [meaning] of scripture" that has been such a plaything of late among the Catholic and Protestant bloggers. Mike's contribution today puts things into extremely clear focus for me, and I expect it will move things along a good bit.

In today's post Mike draws upon an argument of St. Thomas Aquinas the holds that there is an analogous relation between knowledge and faith, and the analogy is quite interesting. Epistemologists typically draw a distinction between a true belief, on the one hand, and genuine knowledge on the other hand, by pointing to some token of warrant or justification as a boundary condition between the two mental states. Aquinas talks of understanding the proof of the item of knowledge as the proper form of warrant. In his dialog called Meno Plato has Socrates say that true belief is about as good as knowledge for the most part, but in other dialogs Plato suggests that, when it gets right down to brass tacks, there is in fact a specific difference between them.

So, too, Aquinas argues, there is a difference between genuine faith and something else that is like faith but that, in the end, is not the genuine article because it does not have the proper necessary condition to mark off the difference between a mental state that is genuine faith as opposed to a mental state that is "as good as" faith, that is, a state that is consistent with faith but not identical to it. I am reminded here of Kant's distinction between acts that are done from duty as opposed to acts that are done in accordance with duty. Two acts may appear identical--for example, two different shopkeepers may charge the same, fair price for their goods--and yet there may be a significant moral difference between them. The agent who acts from duty charges the fair price for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do, whereas the agent who acts in accordance with duty does the right thing--he charges the fair price--but he only does so for some ulterior motive, such as wanting to maintain a customer base or to prevent his shop from going out of business. In the domain of faith, then, we can think of two individuals who assent to the same proposition, but who differ with respect to whether their assent is from faith or merely in accordance with faith. When the person assents to the proposition because it is the teaching of the Church, his assent is from faith, he is trusting in something external to himself, while the person who assents to the proposition merely because it is consistent with his own reason and is the decision of his own conscience, his assent is merely in accordance with faith, that is, it is what is required of a faithful person, but it differs from genuine faith.

As usual, Mike does an excellent job of taking this argument from Aquinas and applying it to contemporary theological discourse, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

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