Last time, I argued against what I called the evidentialist principle, the claim that we should always suspend belief in a proposition in the absence of persuasive evidence for that proposition. Instead, I propounded William James' apology for religious faith. James thinks that when we are confronted with a forced and momentous option between live hypotheses, it is both necessary and acceptable to make a leap of faith in one of the hypotheses.
The main thrust of my essay was that following the evidentialist principle leaves us hanging when we find ourselves in an evidential gridlock, but at the same time must do something. Since we ought always act according to standards of rationality, it follows we can act rationally in this situation. In such a case it is rationally permissible to take a leap of faith and believe a proposition which has not yet been demonstrated to be true.
I should emphasize that despite the fact that faith is a passionate commitment to unproven propositions, it is a rational commitment (given suitable circumstances). Hobbes said that one who puts away reason to make room for something else puts out the light of both. I heartily agree; I am engaging what I take to be Harris' and the evidentialists' faulty conception of rationality, not advocating a vision of Faith as contrary to Reason.Larry, the Bum, wants to know if we really are ever confronted with any options like this, and asked me to provide a detailed example. The example I have chosen is vitally important to Christianity (since I am, after all, a Christian theist), and with it stands or falls the rest of Christianity. This post is a brief answer to his fair minded challenge, considering the proposition:
(J) Jesus rose from the dead.
This proposition reports a particular concrete event occurred; a certain man in a certain place who, after his execution, miraculously healed and revived in his tomb. So, there is no worry that (J) is non-propositional or otherwise unable to convey any factual content.
Since there are important and vital goods at stake, the choice to believe or disbelieve (J) is a momentous option for us; if Jesus was resurrected, then it was the most important event in human history. It has profound implications for who we are and what is our relationship to the divine.
The option of whether to believe or disbelieve (J) is forced. In this particular case, I do not think it is reasonable to merely be agnostic about (J). To see this, consider Russell's teapot. We can imagine someone asserting that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, but that no telescope in the world was capable of detecting it. Should we be agnostic about it because we do not have evidence to decide either way? Of course not! Russell points out, “…If I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.” We can say something stronger than that: just as it would be unreasonable to be agnostic about the existence of celestial teapots, it would be unreasonable to be agnostic about a man being resurrected from the dead. To say the least, we have strong prima facie evidence that that people, when dead, stay dead! Thus, there is no being on the fence – we must either affirm or deny (J).
The hypothesis that there are celestial teapots is a dead one; at least until we learn (we can imagine) that astronauts ceremoniously hurl teapots into space!
The hypothesis that there are celestial teapots is a dead one; at least until we learn (we can imagine) that astronauts ceremoniously hurl teapots into space!Some Biblical scholars have argued that there is evidence in favor of (J). Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Christ discusses some of this historical evidence. Also, N.T. Wright has argued that (J) is the best explanation for the emergence of Christianity in the unique socio-historical conditions of first century
However, I do not think we can determine the truth or falsity of (J) by an appeal to historical evidence alone.
However, I do not think we can determine the truth or falsity of (J) by an appeal to historical evidence alone.As discussed in Terence Hines’ book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, scientists have investigated paranormal phenomena ranging from ghosts to ESP -- sometimes under controlled conditions -- and have yet to find persuasive evidence in favor of a non-naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon being investigated. The epistemological point I take from this is that paranormal events, if there are any, are rare, and thus we require powerful evidence to prove they occur.
If the Jamesean apology for faith is correct, and proposition (J) fits into its criteria as I have argued, then we should conclude that when it comes to Christianity there is no objective way of deciding what to do. We must act on the basis of our passions, resolving either to make a leap of faith in (J) or resigning ourselves to its falsehood. Our predicament is one of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst, but we are free, if we are bold enough, to respond to that existential condition with faith. Raising the bar in this way means we
Raising the bar in this way means wecannot establish (J) on the basis of purely historical evidence: we never possess historical evidence that passes the kinds of stringent standards scientific evidence does. My point is that (J) is a live hypothesis – given its intellectual defensibility and ability to coherently explain the historical data, it could be true.
[Timmo is the proprietor of Remarks of a Fish; this essay is original to The Barefoot Bum. --ed.]