Thursday, March 17, 2005

Catholics and Reason: Reply to Certain Misrepresentations of Catholic Apologetics and Philosophy

By Dave Armstrong (5 December 2003; revised on 20 January 2004)

-- including excerpts from Newman's Grammar of Assent --

C. S. Lewis presupposed the existence of natural law and morality in his apologetics and argued that Christian morality merely builds upon what is already known by pagans and heathen (what he calls the "Tao" in his appendix of his book, The Abolition of Man).

Even St. Thomas Aquinas (the great boogie-man of many Reformed apologists) makes a (rather famous) clear distinction between natural law and revelation or faith. He argues, for example, that men can know that God exists from creation, but that a doctrine like the Holy Trinity can only be known through supernatural faith and revelation. Thus, Jaroslav Pelikan describes St. Thomas' views in this regard:
. . . certain truths, such as the existence of God, . . . could be known by reason and not only be revelation, . . . other truths, such as creation ex nihilo, . . . could be known by revelation alone; these latter did not contradict reason, but they did transcend it.
(The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, 251-252)
Where the other notion comes from: that the entirety of Catholic faith "is part of the Natural Law" I have not the faintest idea. I (as a Catholic apologist) would never argue this in a million years. Pelikan states in his article on "Natural Theology":
. . . the Reformation did not primarily affect natural theology . . . The theologians of the Enlightenment retained the traditional distinction between natural and revealed theology, but to the eyes of the defenders of the church's teachings they appeared to assign to revealed theology a steadily diminishing share of truth about God, freedom, and immortality, When Kant's Critique of Pure Reason put these three issues beyond the capacity of natural reason to prove or disprove, that appeared to be the end of natural theology as either a philosophical or a theological enterprise. (Ibid., 177-178)
Later, Pelikan maintains that natural theology was not yet dead. Now if the person above wants to side with the Enlightenment philosophers and argue against natural theology, he is free to do so, of course. In a paper which was on my site for a few years, about my opposition to debating anti-Catholics (the meat of it was moved into my book, Twin Scourges), I wrote, among other things:
The Catholic position is . . . complex, highly-interrelated, and (in its complexity, spiritual profundity, and inner logic) much more a "thinking man's religion" than Protestantism is.
Due to the complexity and interrelatedness of the Catholic position, it is difficult to promulgate it in sound-bytes, unlike many brands of evangelicalism.
In a debate about papal infallibility, for instance, it would be necessary to also have debates on apostolic succession, episcopacy, the nature of the Church, indefectibility, the nature of authority, New Testament teaching on Tradition, development of doctrine, the self-defeating nature of sola Scriptura, etc. I don't think the average Protestant (even if not anti-Catholic) has any hope of understanding papal infallibility (and "problems" like the Honorius case) without some knowledge of these other presuppositional issues.
Evangelicalism lends itself far more easily to shallow rhetoric and slogans; Catholicism does not. It is complex, nuanced, and requires much thought and study. And thought takes time, no matter how you slice the cake. Truth and the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom requires time.
Now, do I and other Catholics who think about their faith believe it is a coherent, consistent system? Of course. But I fail to see why this should be some black mark against us. What thinking, reasonable person does not seek a system which is logical and not self-defeating? So I fail to see the point. If the charge is that Catholicism is a reasonable, plausible, and rational system of thought and theology, we stand proudly guilty as charged. If I wanted irrational religion I could have been a Jehovah's Witness, or a Scientologist or Mormon or Moonie or New Ager. That's not my cup of tea.
In one of my dialogues with atheists I explained my viewpoint on the extraordinary complexity of belief in God and belief in one particular religious viewpoint. This is the furthest viewpoint imaginable from the caricature above, of an "immediately apparent truth understood by all who have an IQ above their shoe size":
I think (as anyone would fully expect) that the theistic proofs are compelling and the atheist ones implausible and fallacious, yet I believe that the "psychological" aspects of belief (all sorts of belief, not just religious faith; i.e., epistemology) and the many many complex influences which make one believe what they do, "nullify" -- in large part --, the clearness of the objective proofs qua proofs.
In effect, then, it would not be such a clear thing, either way, once these other non-philosophical influences and factors are taken into account. Nor (for largely the same reason) is it so straightforward (as some atheists seem to think), that if a person is presented with a fantastic miracle, that they automatically believe in God or Christianity. That is not the biblical teaching, nor what we have learned from human experience and history. And that is because every person comes to the table with a host of prior belief-paradigms and theoretical frameworks, and experiences, including the emotions and the will, which are not to be underestimated, either, in their effect on beliefs, in all people, of whatever stripe.
. . . I think any belief is extremely psychologically and intellectually complex, . . . I don't question anyone's sincerity or intellectual honesty. That's not the issue. Both sides have to come up with some reason why the "other guys" aren't convinced by the same evidence.

And again in my paper, "The Relationship Between Christianity and Philosophy (particularly regarding the interpretation of the Church Fathers)":
We all see things through an interpretive grid. We emphasize and tend to see and not see certain things according to what our prior position is. This is natural and it is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply is. It is the way brains and minds function: how they make sense of reality, and construct and organize the outer reality (whatever it really is) abstractly for themselves. I often see a parallel in philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn's classic analysis: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. We all have paradigms that guide our perceptions. That is true in theology as well as in science. One has to overthrow the paradigm to see things fundamentally differently. And before that happens it is extremely difficult to even see, let alone comprehend another framework, theory, or worldview.

And this is because worldviews and theories start with different assumptions. Then the house is built upon those foundational assumptions. Therefore, I don't have to assert that Protestants are "dishonest" or "stupid" because they can't see what I take to be evident realities about certain of the Fathers' views on various doctrinal matters, and so forth. They see what they have been conditioned to see, based on their own presuppositional grid. And the Catholic does the same from his Catholic grid. I have never denied this. I believe it about all fields of knowledge, across the board. I understand the Protestant position on this because I used to hold it myself. I can see both sides, having held both. I think it is a worthwhile exercise, however, to compare two paradigms and try to determine relative plausibility and factuality.
And in yet another paper I wrote:
I regard Christian faith as an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, arrived at (apart from the absolutely necessary and definitive grace of God, of course; speaking strictly of the human, intellectual reasons one would give for having adopted Christianity) by many, many factors, some of which are rational in nature, some not; some intellectual, and others "psychological" or "environmental."
The charge is made that Catholics believe whatever they want about history, despite the facts, simply because their Church tells them to, and they accept this with blind faith. We believe that history (as it is; not as we define or distort it for our own nefarious ends) backs up our position. We really do think that, just as I really do believe that the Bible backs up Catholicism far more than it does Protestantism (per the theme of my website and many of my books and papers). This may cause heart attacks and strokes for folks who have been relentlessly conditioned to think that Catholicism is both unbiblical and irrational, but having such an opinion doesn't entitle a Protestant to instantly assume that a Catholic is a rationalizing, dishonest, intellectually-facile person because he believes what he does, as if sincere, intellectually-coherent orthodox Catholicism were impossible from the get-go.
Nor does orthodox Catholic belief require a head-in-the-sand approach to history, as if we are any more scared of history than we supposedly are of the Bible itself (both common claims emanating from a prejudicial, anti-Catholic condescending and patronizing viewpoint). I always compare this to Protestant belief in an inerrant, infallible Bible yet acknowledgement that there are a host of exegetical, hermeneutical, and linguistic "problems" to be worked out. That's what makes study of the Bible fun and educational, after all. If we knew everything already, then we wouldn't have to study. But as it is, there are such works as Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. I wrote in my paper on "Salvation "Outside" the Church":
. . . statements of Ecumenical Councils are not immediately suspect as non-infallible simply because some differences of interpretation may exist, or because, prima facie (prior to any in-depth analysis at all), they might appear to clash with some other Catholic teaching. Protestants can't even agree on something so central to biblical thought as baptism (with five major contradictory camps), yet manage to believe that Scripture is perspicuous and able to be understood in the main by someone with an average intelligence. So far be it from them to wax eloquent about alleged Catholic conciliar contradictions. "People in glass houses . . . " But I digress . . .
Granted, we can't prove that councils are infallible anymore than one can "prove" that the Bible is inerrant and inspired. Both propositions obviously require faith. But we can demonstrate through reason and historical analysis that something is not immediately (and self-evidently) contradictory, as you are claiming.
We can, in other words, disprove the negative charge. The positive assertion will always require faith. You don't possess that faith in infallible councils (which we believe are protected by God from error, not the wisdom of men) -- we understand that, but you have failed in your attempt at establishing internal inconsistency in this case.
It's precisely because we believe in something that there are "problems" to be worked out. C. S. Lewis said that "the rules of chess create chess problems." Likewise, with Catholics and history. We believe certain things in faith, such as papal infallibility. There are a number of historical "difficulties" that come up (most notably, Honorius, Vigilius, and Liberius). Catholics have different theories that they use to "resolve" these.
There is no warrant to accuse a Catholic of special pleading and intellectual dishonesty in historical matters simply because he tries to solve certain ostensible historical anomalies which occur within a faith position, anymore than we should accuse a scientist of dishonesty when he tries to ultimately dismiss as of little import or significance anomalies of natural phenomena that don't seem to fit in with a prevailing theory, or accuse any Christian of irrationally believing in Jesus as a person in history, because many so-called "intelligent" people and academics deny (with a straight face) that He ever existed. Catholics don't ignore history at all.
We face history and its complexities in the same way that Protestants accept the Bible with its complexities and believe in faith that it contains no errors, not even in non-theological aspects. But when the usual garden-variety objections to Catholic views of history are examined, it is often found that there is very little substance to them, and that they are often little more than old wives' tales, passed down because they sound like they are some sort of "zinger" against the Catholic position (much like many, many atheist examples of so-called "Bible contradictions" that often involve the most basic logical fallacies). The Honorius case (which is considered the most compelling objection to papal infallibility) is one such example. See my paper: "Dialogue on (Supposedly Fallible) Pope Honorius."
So Protestants think we're special pleading when we give our theories and reasons as to why we think the Honorius example is non-fatal to infallibility? Then so be it. Atheists think that Protestants are special pleading when they express their belief in God or in miracles or in the Resurrection of Jesus or in their own conversion experience and indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the peace and joy that this brings. Skepticism always stumbles when it confronts faith.

We believe that popes can be wrong on many things when speaking as private individuals. We believe they can be scoundrels and go to hell, and even be personal heretics. 

Anti-Catholics often think that no Catholic has ever dealt with these things before and offered a reasonable answer. This is typical of the common Protestant attribution of invincible ignorance to Catholics, and the insinuation that there must have been some cover-up of the truth along the way: as silly as the groundless and easily-disproved myth that the Catholic Church opposed the Bible or the vernacular. Old myths die hard.
No "problem" in the Bible can ever overcome Protestants' (and Catholics') belief in its inspired status and infallibility and inerrancy. What's the difference? And if it is permissible and plausible to believe in faith, why is some Catholic viewpoint on history or authority inherently non-believable or non-epistemologically justifiable a priori? I don't see it. No biblical text about falling away can ever overcome a Calvinist's conviction that such things are impossible. TULIP itself is an unquestionable "mathematical axiom," no matter how much biblical data to the contrary is brought forth. Everybody has axioms. So what?
To the extent that I am a follower of any particular philosophy, it is that of John Henry Newman. Jaroslav Pelikan wrote about Newman's views:
Without confronting Thomism head-on, Newman's Grammar of Assent accepted the positive function of doubt as a means of moving towards faith, and it elevated "probability" to the status occupied by "certainty" in earlier systems. For any such epistemology, psychology and experience necessarily became prominent; in this respect as in others, Newman manifested more affinities with Augustine than with the scholastics. (Ibid., 180)
To reiterate, the particular critic of the Catholic Church quoted above states that Catholic apologists are saying that Catholicism is "clear as day" and that anyone who doesn't see this and convert is a scoundrel, dishonest, pulls the wings off of flies, etc. I have responded that I follow Newman's philosophy. For Newman and for myself, conversion (to Christianity in general or to Catholicism in particular) is an extraordinarily complicated process. Here are some statements about conversion and how people arrive at their opinions, from Cardinal Newman's classic, An Essay in Aid of Grammar of Assent (1870):
It is plain that formal logical sequence is not in fact the method by which we are enabled to become certain of what is concrete; and it is equally plain, from what has been already suggested, what the real and necessary method is. It is the cumulation of probabilities, independent of each other, arising out of the nature and circumstances of the particular case which is under review; probabilities too fine to avail separately, too subtle and circuitous to be convertible into syllogisms, too numerous and various for such conversion, even were they convertible. As a man's portrait differs from a sketch of him, in having, not merely a continuous outline, but all its details filled in, and shades and colours laid on and harmonized together, such is the multiform and intricate process of ratiocination, necessary for our reaching him as a concrete fact, compared with the rude operation of syllogistic treatment.
. . . This I conceive to be the real method of reasoning in concrete matters; and it has these characteristics:— First, it does not supersede the logical form of inference, but is one and the same with it; only it is no longer an abstraction, but carried out into the realities of life, its premisses being instinct with the substance and the momentum of that mass of probabilities, which, acting upon each other in correction and confirmation, carry it home definitely to the individual case, which is its original scope.
Next, from what has been said it is plain, that such a process of reasoning is more or less implicit, and without the direct and full advertence of the mind exercising it. As by the use of our eyesight we recognize two brothers, yet without being able to express what it is by which we distinguish them; as at first sight we perhaps confuse them together, but, on better knowledge, we see no likeness between them at all; as it requires an artist's eye to determine what lines and shades make a countenance look young or old, amiable, thoughtful, angry or conceited, the principle of discrimination being in each case real, but implicit;—so is the mind unequal to a complete analysis of the motives which carry it on to a particular conclusion, and is swayed and determined by a body of proof, which it recognizes only as a body, and not in its constituent parts.
. . . Recurring to Pascal's argument, I observe that, its force depending upon the assumption that the facts of Christianity are beyond human nature, therefore, according as the powers of nature are placed at a high or low standard, that force will be greater or less; and that standard will vary according to the respective dispositions, opinions, and experiences, of those to whom the argument is addressed. Thus its value is a personal question; not as if there were not an objective truth and Christianity as a whole not supernatural, but that, when we come to consider where it is that the supernatural presence is found, there may be fair differences of opinion, both as to the fact and the proof of what is supernatural. There is a multitude of facts, which, taken separately, may perhaps be natural, but, found together, must come from a source above nature; and what these are, and how many are necessary, will be variously determined. And while every inquirer has a right to determine the question according to the best exercise of his judgment, still whether he so determine it for himself, or trust in part or altogether to the judgment of those who have the best claim to judge, in either case he is guided by the implicit processes of the reasoning faculty, not by any manufacture of arguments forcing their way to an irrefragable conclusion.
. . . In like manner, the conclusion in a real or concrete question is foreseen and predicted rather than actually attained; foreseen in the number and direction of accumulated premisses, which all converge to it, and as the result of their combination, approach it more nearly than any assignable difference, yet do not touch it logically (though only not touching it,) on account of the nature of its subject-matter, and the delicate and implicit character of at least part of the reasonings on which it depends. It is by the strength, variety, or multiplicity of premisses, which are only probable, not by invincible syllogisms,—by objections overcome, by adverse theories neutralized, by difficulties gradually clearing up, by exceptions proving the rule, by un-looked-for correlations found with received truths, by suspense and delay in the process issuing in triumphant reactions,—by all these ways, and many others, it is that the practised and experienced mind is able to make a sure divination that a conclusion is inevitable, of which his lines of reasoning do not actually put him in possession. This is what is meant by a proposition being "as good as proved," a conclusion as undeniable "as if it were proved," and by the reasons for it "amounting to a proof," for a proof is the limit of converging probabilities.
It may be added, that, whereas the logical form of this argument, is, as I have already observed, indirect, viz. that "the conclusion cannot be otherwise," and Butler says that an event is proved, if its antecedents "could not in reason be supposed to have happened unless it were true," and law-books tell us that the principle of circumstantial evidence is the reductio ad absurdum, . . .
Here is a writer who professes to have no doubt at all about the authorship of a book,—which at the same time he cannot prove by mere argumentation set down in words. The reasons of his conviction are too delicate, too intricate; nay, they are in part invisible; invisible, except to those who from circumstances have an intellectual perception of what does not appear to the many. They are personal to the individual. This again is an instance, distinctly set before us, of the particular mode in which the mind progresses in concrete matter, viz. from merely probable antecedents to the sufficient proof of a fact or a truth, and, after the proof, to an act of certitude about it . . .
And so of the great fundamental truths of religion, natural and revealed, and as regards the mass of religious men: these truths, doubtless, may be proved and defended by an array of invincible logical arguments, but such is not commonly the method in which those same logical arguments make their way into our minds. The grounds, on which we hold the divine origin of the Church, and the previous truths which are taught us by nature—the being of a God, and the immortality of the soul—are felt by most men to be recondite and impalpable, in proportion to their depth and reality. As we cannot see ourselves, so we cannot well see intellectual motives which are so intimately ours, and which spring up from the very constitution of our minds; and while we refuse to admit the notion that religion has not irrefragable arguments in its behalf, still the attempts to argue, on the part of an individual hic et nunc, will sometimes only confuse his apprehension of sacred objects, and subtracts from his devotion quite as much as it adds to his knowledge.
(Chapter 8: "Inference," section 2: "Informal Inference"; section 3: "Natural Inference")
My own thought on these matters is quite harmonious with Newman's (and also Alvin Plantinga's, as far as I can see):
In a limited, theoretical (one might say, "human") sense, no knowledge is absolutely positively certain. But that's from the outlook of mere reason and philosophy in and of themselves, not the "eyes of faith," so to speak. Christians possess certainties by faith, which the outsider does not have, and in many cases is not even able to comprehend, let alone accept.
So when I claim that I am "open-minded" and would consider a possibility (however remote -- and it assuredly is) that Catholicism is wrong, I am going as far as I can go in abstractly arguing philosophically, or "historically." I would contend that the very fact that Christianity is -- by nature -- unavoidably and intrinsically historical and reasonable, and that the apostles (following the lead of Jesus) sought to bring forth real reasons and evidences for faith, presupposes that it is also possible to disprove Catholicism and Christianity in general. If we can offer no proofs from reason, history, OT Scripture, etc., then we are engaging in pure fideism (faith without any reasons whatsoever), in which case, Christianity cannot be disproven, either. I don't think that this is the case, and that if it were, Christianity would possess far less credibility than it does now, from the perspective of the unbeliever.
Sometimes it is implied that anyone who takes a certain view and defends it is special pleading; therefore not seeking after truth. That would mean that the only honest intellectual stance is agnosticism or skepticism or relativism. This I vehemently reject. One mustn't be so "open-minded" that their brains fall out. It is illogical to believe that once one feels that they have discovered a certain amount of "truth," that they are no longer seeking truth per se. This may be true of certain individuals, of course, but it can't be shown to be generally true, nor does it have to necessarily be true.
One must be willing in principle to overthrow one's own views if it is warranted by the evidence, even though in matters of faith it is admittedly exceedingly unlikely.
Like Bishop Butler (Analogy of Religion) and Cardinal Newman, my epistemology and religious faith (insofar as it is connected with reason) is based on (in Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm's words) "brute fact . . .The ultimate data of religion must be of the same stuff as the ultimate data of science." This has always been my view, for 21 years now, and it didn't change when I became a Catholic. It didn't have to. I have developed it through the years, of course, but it hasn't fundamentally changed.
My own view on philosophy is essentially syncretistic. I am not a Thomist; I never have been, anymore than Newman was. I love St. Thomas, and especially the cosmological argument, which he essentially began, but I'm not a Thomist. And if a choice must be made, I lean more towards nominalist assumptions than realist (more so after my recent research), particularly in my Alvin Plantinga-like views (he is a well-known and important Reformed philosopher) that there are no absolute proofs of God or, indeed, of anything, in a certain sense. My apologetics are based in the notion of accumulated evidences adding up to a great deal of overall plausibility, which is, in turn incorporated into the faith which goes beyond reason.

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