Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been debating whether religious “moderation” is a rationally acceptable alternative to religious fundamentalism. Harris contends that religious “moderation” is self-delusive: it pretends to be rational and integrate doubt into faith while at the same time rejecting the possibility of falsification. This post is a short essay response to Sam Harris’ position (or something like it) in the debate.
To be sure, their debate raises interesting questions about the nature of Faith and whether or not it is compatible with Reason. However, much of the content of Harris’ attack on faith is familiar. Without too much doubt, Harris is making the common objection that we should not believe in God (or other religious doctrines) because we cannot be said to really know them. This objection appeals to what may be called the Evidentialist Principle:
(EP) We ought only assent to those propositions which can be established by evidence.
Taking a leap of faith entails stepping beyond what can be established by appealing to objective evidence. As a result, it is an inherently unreasonable act – because such a leap seems to eschew rational standards of validation, it lacks justification. It follows that we should suspend belief in God, since (EP) demands our beliefs lay where the evidence does.
Some philosophers, such as Aquinas and Leibniz, have thought it was possible to meet this evidentialist challenge head-on and provide proofs for the existence of God. The project of natural theology is to establish some core religious truths by providing rigorous arguments for them. Whether this project can succeed or not is a difficult question, and I suspect that it is not possible to produce an argument that, on pain of absurdity, rationally forces belief in God.
However, I do not think that we should on that account dismiss theism. In the Will to Believe, William James argues persuasively (EP) is false by showing it is only one of many intellectual strategies available to us. In the sciences, we act with the greatest caution, accepting only those hypotheses which are experimentally grounded. As a general intellectual approach to the world, however, this is not necessarily appropriate. James argues that this position is inadequate because it does not make it possible to believe certain kinds of truths. Why always forfeit a chance at the truth due to the risk of error?
Believe truth! Shun error! – these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoided of error as more imperative, and let truth takes it chance.
The aim of inquiry is ultimately to find the truth, thus the method, modeled to some extent after scientific thinking, recommended by the evidentialist is unsuitable to serve our purpose. Instead, James maps out an alternative strategy to following the scriptures of (EP). A living option is one in which the alternative hypotheses are alive in the sense that they are intellectually defensible propositions which may be true. A forced option is a dilemma, with no possibility of not choosing (because not choose is functionally the same as one of the options). In a momentous option, the option may never again present itself, or the decision is effectively permanent, or something important hangs on the choice. James calls an option genuine when it is living, momentous, and forced.
The choice between Theism/Non-Theism is a genuine option in this sense. I think that theism, Christianity in particular, is an intellectually defensible position, making it a living option (a strong claim for a blog post!). Given that theism is the sort of belief which organizes one’s entire way of life, the option is also momentous. Lastly, the choice is based on a complete logical disjunction – our hand is forced when it comes to Theism or Non-Theism. Given the stakes and confines of this genuine option, it is reasonable to assent to Theism. James writes,
Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds…
James is suggesting that only genuine options which are intellectually open are decidable on passional grounds. So, he is not attacking the idea that we should conform views to the evidence, whenever there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a particular position is correct. His target is the universality of the prohibition of believing a proposition whenever the evidence is insufficient for demonstrating it. Since it is reasonable for Reason to acknowledge limits to its power, it can be rational to have faith in certain unproven propositions. The idea that we can rationally make a leap of faith whenever we are presented with a forced and momentous option between two live hypotheses has great intuitive force, and undercuts the validity of the evidentialist principle (EP). James supposes,
…if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will – I hope you do not think I am denying that – but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed. In either case, we act, taking our life into our hands.
When the other disciples told Thomas that Jesus had risen from the grave, he did not believe them. He declared that he would not believe until he put his fingers into Jesus' nailmarks and felt where His side was pierced by the spear. Jesus did in fact let Thomas do this, after which he acknowledged the truth of the disciples' reports. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Given James' considerations, I think what Jesus was acknowledging was the profound courage and unique spirit it takes to live a life of faith. If we are candid, then it seems we ought to admit that living with the passion of faith is a blessed thing indeed.